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Executive Daily Update: Initiatives to deal with Coronavirus (20 May 2020)

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Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

A £25 million boost for the beef and dairy sectors was today welcomed by the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots.

During a visit to Stephen Graham’s Hollowbridge Farm in Co Down, Minister Poots confirmed that additional funding from the Executive would help mitigate falls in demand and prices for beef and dairy products during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Minister said: “This cash injection is the most generous allocation made by any UK or EU administration for the agriculture sector during the Coronavirus emergency and reflects the deep and complex challenges the industry faces. We know that with falling demand and prices for beef and dairy products, many farm businesses have been amongst the hardest hit, so the funding I have secured will certainly go some way towards helping the sectors. This will be a lifeline for many businesses and reflects the Executive’s commitment to supporting the sectors.”

With the horticulture sector also facing challenges, the Minister vowed to monitor closely the impact on producers over the coming weeks.

He also welcomed the £3.8 million allocation from the Executive to help cover higher waste collection, treatment and disposal costs in Councils. The funding will also support the additional costs of implementing social distancing measures and ensure that staff across councils are able to fulfil these crucial waste management roles in a safe manner.

It also emerged that 24,494 Single Applications were received by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs by midnight on 15 May 2020 despite the Covid-19 lockdown.

Minister Poots thanked farmers, agents and his own staff for working together to ensure that applications were received on time, despite the added operating difficulties due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

He said: “After stopping face to face interactions in DAERA Direct Offices on 25 March, my Department adapted rapidly and proactively to the changing circumstances to ensure farmers and agents continued to receive assistance when required.We enhanced our telephone advisory service, which enabled 1,190 farmers to provide their application over the phone. Our trained staff responded to more than 7,000 queries through webchats, emails, and telephone calls.”

The Minister said the Department should be in position to issue full payments in October.

Farmers can, however, amend applications up to 9 June without incurring a penalty.

The £40 million NI Micro-business Hardship Fund opened to applications today, as of 6.00pm.

The grant scheme is targeted at businesses with one to nine employees facing immediate cash flow difficulties due to Covid-19 – this includes eligible social enterprises.

Economy Minister Dodds said: “The Hardship Fund will provide much-needed support to micro-businesses which have so far been unable to access other regional and national coronavirus support measures. This new fund should mean that over 40,000 businesses in Northern Ireland will have been eligible to apply for support under the Northern Ireland Covid-19 grant schemes.”

The funding is available to businesses unable to access the £10,000, £25,000 and Covid-19 Childcare Support grant schemes.

To be eligible, businesses must have experienced a reduction in turnover in excess of 40% since 1 March 2020 as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic or associated government restrictions. For eligible businesses which are social enterprises without charitable status, at least 60% of their revenue must come from trade in goods and/or services.

Temporary changes to pupil assessments and reporting requirements were also announced by the Education Minister Peter Weir.

Each year, schools are expected to produce a report for each pupil as well as statutory assessments at the end of each key stage.

The Minister also placed a temporary suspension on the collection of exams data, following the decision to cancel the summer 2020 examination series.

Minister Weir said: “During the current public health emergency I have been considering ways to ease the requirements on schools in relation to statutory assessment and school reporting arrangements. In these challenging times, it is not practicable for schools to spend the significant amount of time required to complete these detailed reports. Instead, I have decided that, this year, schools will not have to submit assessments. I am also introducing temporary modifications which will provide schools with a high level of discretion to decide what should be included in school reports. This will allow teachers time to continue their excellent work in providing distance learning to their pupils.”

Guidance will be published for schools on these new measures.

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