Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the last five days been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots and Health Minister Robin Swann approved the use of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) laboratories to test up to 1,000 samples a day from suspect COVID-19 cases.
AFBI will deliver the service at its labs in Stormont for an initial 12 week period, via a newly established consortium with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.
Queen’s will act as the liaison with DoH, PHA and the trusts’ lab network and have also offered staff to help undertake testing at the Veterinary Services Division.
Ulster University are working mainly with the Western HSC Trust to establish and support testing at Altnagelvin.
Minister Poots said: “Subject to us being able to secure the key test kits and reagents, AFBI is able to offer its technical and scientific expertise which will hugely support the HSC efforts in the critical area of diagnostic testing. When fully operational in a number of weeks it is expected that AFBI may test up to 1,000 samples per day.”
Minister Swann said: “All those bodies who have stepped forward to assist with increasing our testing capacity will play a crucial part in enhancing our armoury as we fight against COVID-19. I wish to take this opportunity to express my personal thanks to colleagues in AFBI, Queen’s and Ulster Universities and I also pass on the thanks of my frontline staff and the community as a whole for their efforts.”
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey launched a £500,000 Hardship Fund for sports clubs and sporting organisations unable to benefit from other COVID-19 mitigation funds.
Sports clubs and sporting organisations from the voluntary and community sector trying to maintain their facilities during the pandemic will be able to apply to Sport NI for a small grant of £2,000 to help with immediate financial commitments.
Minister Hargey said: “Sport will have a crucial role to play in helping communities to get through this crisis and to help society come out of the lockdown period. It is therefore essential that sporting organisations and clubs are in a position to offer communities and individuals access to sport and physical activities as soon as it is safe to do so.”
An initial budget of £500,000 has been allocated for the Hardship Fund for Sport up to 30 June 2020. Successful applications will receive a flat rate grant of £2,000 each.
On April 10, Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced financial support for business specifically targeted at the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors to help them during the outbreak.
Businesses in the sectors can apply from April 20 for grants of £25,000, with the applications taking around 15 working days to process, subject to verification of eligibility.
The Small Business Support Grant Scheme, providing grants of £10,000, will also be extended to include small industrial businesses that qualify for industrial de-rating.
Minister Dodds said: “In recent years, the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors in Northern Ireland have flourished, but their sustainability is based on people being able to travel, shop and socialise. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the fragility of these sectors and I am acutely aware of the hardship now being faced by these businesses.
“Over 4,000 businesses in these sectors will be able to apply for grants of £25,000 from Monday 20 April. Information on eligibility and how to apply will be available on the nibusinessinfo website and I urge anyone who believes they are eligible to apply from that date.”
With both schemes closing for applications on Wednesday 20 May, the Minister indicated work was continuing in setting up a fund to support other businesses that are currently unable to access existing regional or national grant schemes.
As of 10 April, 14,716 payments have been issued under the Small Business Support Grant Scheme.