A voucher scheme could see every adult in Northern Ireland being handed a prepaid card worth £75-£100 to spend in the local economy.
Under an initiative inspired by a similar scheme in Jersey, the plan by Stormont’s Department for the Economy is that the cards will be spent in shops, restaurants and hotels at the start of the year.
The announcement comes days before the retail and hospitality sectors close for two weeks in a bid to stem the second spike of the coronavirus pandemic.
Department officials are working on how to use the £95m allocated by Finance Minister Conor Murphy for the scheme.
Depending on administration costs and whether the allocation is topped up, cards worth £75-£100 will be handed to every adult either over the age of 16 or the age of 18 to be spent before the end of March to boost businesses in what is traditionally the toughest time of the year.
It is understood the department remains hopeful the £95m allocation may be topped up. The figure of £75-£100 appears to have supplanted a suggestion made on Monday that each household would get around £200.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds emphasised it is an economic stimulus for bricks and mortar businesses including retail, restaurants and hotels, and is not to be spent online.
“It’s about injecting income into Northern Ireland’s economy,” she said.
“We’re at very early days of the whole scheme.
“It is worth £95m, that is the allocation we have been given from the Department of Finance and we will obviously design the scheme taking into account the costs of the scheme and the number of people in Northern Ireland to divide that through.
“We are still working out the detail but the policy intent is to provide stimulus for the Northern Ireland high street, to restaurants and hotels, that broad range of businesses, after having to close prior to Christmas.”
Ms Dodds added it is “about hope”.
“It is a hopeful announcement in that not only are we talking about economic stimulus for the high street but coupled with increased testing and the hope of the roll out of the vaccine, I am absolutely sure that people are looking for more hopeful and normal days ahead,” she said.
The scheme was welcomed by traders on the Belmont Road in Belfast.
Craig Stafford, manager of MK Toys and Books, said it “sounds good so far”.
“It’s quite bizarre to hear of the Government giving away free vouchers to everyone, not too sure how it is going to pan out but it could be a great thing,” he said.
“It’s great to see Government take notice of small businesses because this year has shown us that local shops are important to the community.”
Karen Breene, director of Murphy and Bailey, a pet store which has been open just over a month, described the scheme as a “great idea”.
“We’re worried about January and February already with the impact of Covid coming up to Christmas, we’re conscious that those months can be very lean months but we’ll still have overheads and rent to pay,” she said.
“We’ve had customers talking about it already today and what they’d like to buy from us when the vouchers come, so it’s definitely going to help increase sales.”
In relation to encouraging people into shops, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride has urged the retail sector to take steps to manage the flow of customers.
He said he was less concerned about queues outside shops but said large crowds inside shops would be a concern.
“In terms of trying to encourage the economy and breathe some life back into the retail sector, I think is important that’s planned and that’s managed and that what we don’t see is unmanaged crowds within the retail sector,” he said.
“I’m less concerned about managed crowds queuing to access the retail sector but certainly what we need to do is prevent crowding indoors in busy retail outlets when the scheme is deployed in the new year.”
-- to www.belfastlive.co.uk