Initiatives to deal with Coronavirus (26 March 2020)

Northern Ireland Executive Ministers and their officials were today involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and Education Minister Peter Weir moved to ensure that the families of children on free school meals do not experience any hardship as a result of the recent closure of schools.

Minister Hargey confirmed direct payments of £2.70 per child per day will be made every two weeks to the families of 97,000 children for each day their school is closed.

Minister Weir said the Education Authority would process grants for the vast majority of the 50,000 families receiving free school meals but where their bank details are not known, families would be contacted by text message early next week, urging them to immediately complete an online form on the Education Authority website.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced the first set of payments for small businesses impacted by the Coronavirus crisis will be made under the Small Business Grant Scheme on 31 March, if not before then.

An online portal: https://www.covid-19smallbusinessgrants.economy-ni.gov.uk/ has gone live for businesses to register their bank and rates details to secure payment.

Payments of the £10,000 grant will be available in cash to 27,000 small businesses including those in receipt of the Small Business Grants Scheme. An additional 4,000 businesses in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors will receive £25,000 in cash if they have a rateable value of between £15,001 and £51,000.

Self-employed people with trading profits of under £50,000 will also be able to benefit from a HM Treasury Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, a taxable grant worth 80% of their average monthly profits over the last three years, up to £2,500 per month.

The move was welcomed by the First Minister Arlene Foster and the deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill who had been pressing for financial support for the self-employed.

The Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health Richard Pengelly wrote to Health Trust chief executives to outline the next phase of preparations across the health service for an upsurge in Covid-19 cases.

Trusts have been asked to prioritise patient care, urgently discharge medically fit patients, reconfigure hospital services, maximise all spare capacity in residential, nursing and domiciliary care and end general hospital visits with only a few limited exceptions.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon approved free travel for NHS workers on public transport from tomorrow, with Health and Social Care workers required to present their work pass to Translink staff on all services.

Healthcare staff working in private sector settings like care homes can avail of free travel by showing photographic ID and obtaining a letter available from the Department of Health, signed by their employer.

The Minister announced there would be a further reduction in the level of public transport provision from Monday 30 March when Translink Bus and Rail Services will operate a further reduced frequency timetable.

No service will be allowed to admit more than 50% of passengers on board. Passengers will also not be permitted to sit beside other people and must observe the two metre social distancing rule.

Translink will have additional capacity on standby for its heavily used routes to facilitate social distancing.

A newly extended telephone service was set up by the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots to avoid delays in the movement of cattle and help keep the food supply chain moving smoothly.

With the availability of food a key priority for the Executive, farmers who would normally register the movement of an animal in paper format with DAERA Direct offices, will be able to register this activity today by telephone by phoning the Cattle Registration Telephone line on 0300 200 7855 which is operational Monday to Friday from 9.00am-5.00pm.

Farmers who are already registered to use DAERA’s APHIS online system should continue to use this to notify all cattle births, deaths and movements.

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