LISTEN - Stormont announces rates holiday for businesses struggling with Coronavirus

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By Rebecca Black, PA and Q Radio News

Stormont's finance minister has announced a rates holiday to help businesses impacted by coronavirus.

Conor Murphy said all businesses will pay zero rates for the next three months thanks to an emergency package costing £100 million.

He also announced the deferral of rates bills from April until June to help businesses with short-term cash flow.

"These emergency measures will reduce costs and help with cash flow during this extremely challenging time. These are initial measures and I will be making further announcements shortly," he said.

"Rate relief alone will not sustain businesses and the jobs they provide. Everyone has to work together to get us through this."

Mr Murphy has been speaking to Q Radio:

The measures emerged shortly before the Beannchor Group announced the temporary layoff of up to 800 staff and the temporary closure of most of its portfolio of bars and hotels.

The Dirty Onion and Yard Bird, The National, sixty6, Bullitt Belfast, The Ulster Sports Club and the Park Avenue Hotel will close with immediate effect.

The Merchant Hotel will remain open, with a significantly scaled back offering to ensure adherence to health and safety guidance on social distancing due to Covid-19.

Beannchor managing director Bill Wolsey said he has never witnessed a crisis like this in 43 years of business.

"This has been an emotional and extremely tough decision but if we do not act now, we will not have a business to return to," he said.

"We waited for as long as we could to see what support might be available from the Government but the so called 'support package' announced by the Prime Minister and Chancellor this evening is absolutely no support at all. They are offering loans, which will only serve to build up more debt and they are providing absolutely no support to our staff, which is our key priority.

"Meanwhile, other countries in Europe are rallying to help businesses and staff in their vital industries to weather this storm. It's absolutely abysmal.

"This is a terrible blow for our people who have made this group the success story it has become and we will be doing all that we can to support them in the coming weeks."

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said the measures announced by Mr Murphy will help businesses but added: "We are still a huge way away from what's needed. It's not enough, and it may be too late for many.

"Many of our members are rapidly losing their businesses and staff and we need more measures to be implemented immediately. The stress and strain on our people is now immense as they fear they will not be able to provide for their families, pay bills or put food on the table.

"It's now time for the UK Government to get real about the problems that we are facing here and level up in our hour of need and provide the NI Executive with more funding. We are crying out for a lifeline before our industry sinks without trace in what could be a matter of days."

Mr Neill has been speaking to Q Radio:

Mr Murphy also announced the deferral of rate bills for households.

"I recognise that this is also a worrying time financially for households. That is why I have decided to defer the issuing of domestic rate bills from April until June," he said.

The minister encouraged anyone facing financial hardship to contact Land & Property Services to discuss payment plans.

More coronavirus cases in Northern Ireland were announced earlier. The total at 2pm on Tuesday was 62, including 10 new positive cases.

The total number of tests completed in Northern Ireland is 1,338.

The Department of Health has repeated advice to those with mild symptoms - a new persistent cough and/or fever - to stay at home and self-isolate.

"They will not require testing and will not therefore be included in testing totals," a spokesman said.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has said there will be an "upscaling" of communications to the public from the Stormont executive about its response to Covid-19.

"Keeping communities across the North safe at this very concerning time is my priority and I want to reassure the public that my department is doing everything it can to ensure essential services and connections are maintained for those using and reliant on our infrastructure network," she said.

Church of Ireland ministers in Northern Ireland have been told that all parish organisations and activities should stop until further notice, including Sunday and midweek services.

The advice includes enabling members to avail of worship resources, such as leaving church buildings open if appropriate for private prayer.

Clergy have also been advised to ensure that numbers attending funeral services and weddings are kept as low as possible.

The spokesman added that similar advice is being issued by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the general secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland following consultation between the three churches.

Queen's University and Ulster University earlier announced they will close their campuses for teaching and social activities, with staff encouraged to work from home.

The North West 200 road races in May have been postponed on the advice of Government and public health officials.

However, schools remain open in Northern Ireland.

The Catholic Principals' Association has written to Education Minister Peter Weir urging him to close schools immediately, warning that many parents are already keeping their children at home.

On Monday, Mr Weir said schools would close in the future but would not be drawn further.

Major museums in the region will close after Wednesday.

A spokesman for National Museums NI said the Ulster Museum, Folk Museum, Transport Museum and Ulster American Folk Park will close due to the "rapidly evolving situation".

Belfast's Lyric Theatre will close for the first time in its history, having stayed open throughout the Troubles.

Executive producer Jimmy Fay said the theatre was playing its part in helping slow the spread of Covid-19.

He said: "This is the first time in the Lyric's history that we've been forced to close our doors. Even during the very darkest days of the Troubles the Lyric remained open.

"The closure of theatres and other cultural venues will have a very real and devastating impact on the theatre industry and arts community as a whole."

The Orange Order has suspended activities and closed the Museums of Orange Heritage at Schomberg House and Sloan's House Loughgall.

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