Posted: Thu 1st Apr 2021

Pandemic support package dates challenged as First Minister denies goalposts have been moved

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Thursday, Apr 1st, 2021

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The First Minister Mark Drakeford has denied the goalposts have been moved on business support, despite official websites still saying support now allocated to cover through April was to cover up to yesterday.

A package of support for non-essential retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses that continue to be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had been announced by Welsh Government with subsequent ‘top ups’.

The funding was allocated via the non-domestic rates, or business rates, system to ensure quick payments to businesses – who had various levels of support depending on what rateable value they have.

Supply chain businesses to the sectors have also been supported, along with a discretionary fund also accessible.

The tranche of funding has become regular for the sectors, with lockdowns and extensions usually triggering extra payments to help with costs due to the enforced closures. One such  announcement at the end of January noted “It brings this latest phase of Welsh Government support to £650 million and will help businesses with operational costs through to the end of March” , and an announcement on March 12th referred to an extra payment to such businesses, with some references to that helping “businesses with their costs up to 31 March 2021 “.

At today’s briefing the First Minister was questioned on the issue, with many in the sectors surprised to now hear that the most recent funding is intended to cover through April and into May as well.

BBC Wales said: “In terms of the hospitality sector you have now given them indicative dates for reopening but they are still some time away from viable trading, and they think that you have moved the goalposts on them in terms of financial support to tide them over during that period.

“They were under the impression that the support already announced would only be expected to last until the end of March and that there will be a further tranche of funding, Welsh Government says now that they expect it to last beyond the election, do you accept at the very least, there’s been a failure of communication here?”

The First Minister replied: “Let me put it right if there has been. Just being clear with businesses, we announced a further £180 million of funding towards the second half of March, to make sure the businesses in Wales would have the help they need to see them through March, and through April as well.

“Businesses will see no interruption in the flow of financial support to them over that period. Many businesses have already received the help that’s available to them, and for others who are still in the process of applying, cash grants will continue to be paid during April as those applications are confirmed.

“Alongside the money that we announced and is already reaching businesses, we’ve also put £200 million aside in the Welsh Government’s budget for the next financial year.

“Election rules preclude us from making decisions during the pre-election period. I have asked officials of the Welsh Government to make sure that whoever is in government after the sixth of May, there is advice available immediately as to how that £200 million can also be deployed to help welsh businesses. So as soon as the election is over, there will be more help on its way.”

At the time of writing the Restrictions Business Fund information dated the 29th of January is still live on the site and states:

The Restrictions Business Fund Non-Domestic Rates (NDR) and Discretionary based grants for non-essential retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism (NERHLT) sectors has been extended to provide a single top up payment to cover the period between the 25 January and end of March 2021 for businesses affected by national restrictions.

Businesses not eligible for non-domestic rates will be able to continue to apply to local authorities for a Discretionary Grant.

The announcement on the 12th of March is still live, and notes:

A further £150 million has been made available to support Welsh businesses in dealing with the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The additional support will help businesses in the hospitality, tourism, leisure and non-essential retail sectors that pay non-domestic rates and will operate as a top up to the Restrictions Business Fund.

This will see an eligible business with a rateable value of under £12,000 receive an extra £4,000 grant payment.

Firms with a rateable value of between £12,001 and £500,000 will receive £5,000.

The funding, which will help businesses with their costs up to 31 March 2021, will be available to firms regardless of the number of employees and ensures micro businesses benefit from the support.

At today’s briefing we made reference to that release, and that reading between the lines of his earlier answer the solution is that support could be backdated by whoever is in power after the election.

We pointed out that hospitality being closed from today onwards is not a surprise, the elections taking place is not a surprise, and the pre-election period is pretty standard stuff.

We asked how had this support been missed in the reasonably predictable scenario?

We also asked if this was a failure of the cross party group who examined how an election can take place during a pandemic if such an electoral process impacts businesses ?

The First Minister replied: “Well I don’t think that account is a fair or accurate. So let me try and explain it one more time.

“We announced £180 million pounds worth of support for businesses in the middle of March.

“That money will continue to be paid out to people through the month of April. Many businesses have already had that money which we’ll see them not just through the end of March, but through April as well.

“So it’s not a matter of it being backdated, but money is already there to help businesses through from now until the election is over and a new government is formed.”

“The fact that we cannot make detailed allocations of money during an election period is just the standard rules of an election. I just ask you to imagine for a moment what the reaction would be from other parties if I was standing here today announcing lots of allocations for this sort of business and that sort of business, while an election is on.

“The rule is there for a good reason to stop the governing party having an unfair advantage. What I do want to see is whoever is in government after the election, that the advice will be ready for that incoming governments so that £200 million, which we have earmarked in the financial year that is about to begin, that those allocations can be made rapidly by that new government.

“There will be no interruption in the flow of financial support to businesses here in Wales.”

All remaining non-essential retail and close contact services will be allowed to reopen from Monday 12 April, while the rules will also be changed to allow travel into and out of Wales from the rest of the United Kingdom and Common Travel Area.

The Welsh Government is also signalling further changes it aims to confirm at the 22 April review, subject to public health conditions and final confirmation by Ministers, which would see outdoor attractions and outdoor hospitality reopen, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants on Monday 26 April.

By early May, plans include allowing organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people to take place, and for gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities to reopen for individual or one-to-one training but not exercise classes.

After 17 May, the Welsh Government will consider enabling indoor hospitality and remaining visitor accommodation to reopen in advance of the Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May.

Changes remain subject to public health conditions continuing to remain favourable.

Our earlier reports on the expected dates and changes to regulations can be found here.

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