By Michael McHugh, PA
Almost two fifths of small businesses in Northern Ireland fear they will never open again, a survey has revealed.
Nearly half are considering redundancies as they struggle to pay bills, the survey also found.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) called for the introduction of part-time furloughing as it highlighted the plight of those struggling to access Government schemes and Universal Credit.
Northern Ireland policy chair Tina McKenzie said: "Many firms in Northern Ireland are concerned about the future viability of their businesses."
The FSB's fresh survey of 239 small business owners in Northern Ireland found that nearly six in 10 (57%) have been forced to close since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.
Of those that have closed, 37% said they will not reopen or are unsure whether they will ever open again.
Daniel Donnelly of the FSB says it's vital support for business is tailored to reflect conditions.
More than a third (35%) have failed to make, or faced severe difficulties in making, commercial rent or mortgage repayments as a result of the pandemic's economic impacts.
A similar proportion (26%) have had to shelve product development plans.
In response to the strain being placed on them, almost half (46%) have either made, or are considering, redundancies.
Ms McKenzie said: "It is now recognised that the risks associated with coronavirus will not disappear quickly, and it is therefore vital that support for business does not fall off a cliff-edge and is tailored to reflect conditions."
She acknowledged that workers cannot be furloughed indefinitely.
"However, Government should consider a flexible approach, which can enable staff to be part-furloughed, allowing the business to get back on its feet gradually as the public health situation improves and commercial activity increases," she added.
"This would enable the Job Retention Scheme to serve its original purpose - to avoid, rather than to delay, mass redundancies.
"Small businesses know that they can't be sustained on the public purse forever but, in order to alleviate some of the pressure they are facing, it is crucial that we look ahead to the recovery phase."
She said this will require businesses to be clearly advised on how to operate safely and supported to make the necessary adjustments.
"Doing this properly will enable the economy to recover more quickly and could avoid a prolonged, deep recession, which would have significant economic and social ramifications," she said.