Finance Minister Conor Murphy has been urged to “step up and provide clarity” to more than 800 businesses who were wrongly told they were not eligible for Covid financial support.
UP MP Carla Lockhart on Friday hit out at Mr Murphy, and repeated her call for him to apologise for the confusion to the affected business owners who had made grant applications and were ordered to shut up shop because of coronavirus restrictions.
“Constituency offices across Northern Ireland are being contacted by small businesses who had applied for this grant,” said the Upper Bann MP.
“There is total confusion. This demands action by the Finance Minister to ensure there is a communication strategy rolled out to help provide clarity for those applicants.”
Ms Lockhart explained the confusion centres on a “check box” which she claimed led the Department of Finance (DoF) to believe that the applicants had not been trading before the restrictions were put in place.
The DoF has stressed that it cannot process applications which have been filled incorrectly.
The MP added: “Some of the businesses I have dealt with have been trading for over 30 years and are deeply frustrated that five weeks after closing they are now facing into an appeal mechanism to get the support they deserve.
“Five weeks after closing, it is not good enough that payments are stalled. We all appreciate the need for checks and balances when paying out public money but this was supposed to be a simple scheme to speed up payments, yet it is stalled in confusion.”
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, on Friday night insisted it was “not acceptable” for businesses to be placed in this situation.
“Many businesses are on now life support and it is vital that all Executive departments process and pay out financial support as quickly as possible,” he said.
In response the DoF said there can be a “variety of reasons” why an application is deemed ineligible including duplicate applications, incorrect information.
“In line with fraud procedures, Land Property Services cannot provide payment to a business if they’ve supplied incorrect information on their form,” they said.
“Emails to unsuccessful applications explains the reason why the application hasn’t been successful and also provides details on how applicants can have their application reconsidered if they disagree with the outcome.”
The row came as a further 12 deaths were announced on Friday and another 391 people tested positive with Covid-19 here. The death toll now stands at 974, according to the health department figures.
Health Minister Robin Swann on Friday revealed that 100 deaths alone had been registered in Northern Ireland in the week up to November 20, describing it as a “chilling illustration of the seriousness of the invisible threat of Covid-19”.
“The number of new coronavirus cases has continued to decline overall, however it should be noted there still remains concerns in regards to the number of cases in the over 60s,” he explained.
“Hospital admissions have continued to decline, albeit slowly, over the last week but remain at a relatively high level.”
“Progress has been made in reducing new cases, with restrictions in place in recent weeks having a discernible impact. That progress must not just be maintained but accelerated.”
He added: “For the sake of ourselves and our health workers we have to redouble our efforts to get through this winter.
“All our focus now should be on maximising the benefits of the lockdown that has just begun.”