// Northern Ireland official says high street voucher scheme will be rolled out “when the time is right”
// The High Street Stimulus package was announced in November but delayed in the wake of the current lockdown
// It was initially meant to be rolled out in January
A high street voucher scheme will be rolled out when the “time is right”, a Northern Ireland official has said.
The High Street Stimulus package was announced by Stormont economy minister Diane Dodds in November but the planned distribution of pre-paid cards to the Northern Ireland population in January was postponed.
That decision was forced by a massive spike of Covid-19 cases at Christmas which sparked a fresh lockdown in the country from the end of December.
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The stimulus package is now part of the Department for the Economy’s Economic Recovery Action Plan.
Officials from the department appeared before the Stormont Economy Committee on Wednesday to be questioned on the £290 million plan, of which £140 million is to be spent on the stimulus package.
The plan is for the pre-paid cards to be spent in shops, restaurants and hotels once Northern Ireland’s lockdown restrictions are lifted in phases.
SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said she has concerns over where the money will be spent and who will benefit from it.
She also raised concerns the stimulus package may have a negative impact on the R rate of the virus, adding that the English chief medical officer Chris Whitty has warned of a potential third wave of coronavirus in the autumn.
“Do we really want to be putting stimulus packages like this in the high street at the moment?” she said.
Official Paul Grocott said they have not had any negative feedback from businesses they have consulted with about the scheme.
“It is exactly the type of intervention that they want to see, they want to see government money being used to incentivise people to get out on to the high street, and in effect what we are doing is putting £140 million into the local high streets,” he told MLAs.
“If the scheme works properly, you’ll get the multiplier effect of people using more than the money on the card in the high street.”
There is not yet a date for non-essential retailers in Northern Ireland to reopen following the latest lock down.
Grocott said the scheme would be rolled out “when the time is right”.
“Delivering it as soon as the shops open would be the wrong thing to do … when the time is right, this will be a really important intervention to help our high streets stimulate demand,” he said.
“Whenever we speak to the trade bodies, chambers of commerce or businesses themselves, they are incredibly supportive of it but recognise the timing has to be right and that will be a decision at Executive level with health advice playing a prominent role.”
He said the minister would present her plan to the Executive for approval “hopefully relatively soon”.
with PA Wires