The banking sector here has said will continue to offer loan repayment breaks for borrowers on a case by case basis.

It comes despite banks across the EU being given clearance by the European Banking Authority to once again extend blanket loan repayment breaks on business and personal loans, including residential mortgages. 

The main Irish lenders introduced repayment breaks for personal and business borrowers at their own initiative in March in order to reduce the financial pressure being caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The EBA subsequently issued guidelines in April which clarified that temporary payment breaks offered in certain conditions would not be classed as non-performing loans which would put additional financial constraints on the banks' balance sheets.

After an additional three-month extension in June, those guidelines expired in September though and since then Irish banks have ceased offering new repayment breaks to customers.

The lenders said that they would deal with customers who continue to face financial challenges on a case by case basis and would offer a range of forbearance options based on the borrower's individual circumstances, including further payment breaks where appropriate.

However, this morning the EBA said it was reactivating the guidelines until the March 31 next year.

It said it was making the move after closely monitoring the developments of the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular the impact of the second wave and the related government restrictions taken in many EU countries.

The EBA said the move will ensure that loans that had previously not benefitted from payment breaks will now be able to.

The new guidelines do contain additional safeguards to guard against the risk of an undue increase in unrecognised losses on banks' balance sheets, the EBA said.

The authority said that with the pandemic continuing it is crucial that banks continue to provide funding into the economy while at the same time recognising solvency issues and ensuring problem loans are reflected on balance sheets.

153,000 payment breaks were offered by Irish banks by October 30, with 74,000 of those being mortgages on family homes.

The number of active payment breaks at the end of October was 23,000, down from 45,000 four weeks earlier.

BPFI response

But Brian Hayes, chief executive of the Banking and Payments Federation said the problems banks and borrowers face now are not the same as they faced earlier this year.

"Large numbers of people are coming off payment breaks, going back to paying full capital and interest and we are not seeing a demand for payment breaks across the system," he said.

"But we will obviously monitor the situation closely in the weeks ahead."

He said in some cases a payment break is not a solution, and putting more debt on people when they should be looking for a long-term solution is not the way to go.

Experience from lenders across the market is that as people come off a payment break around 90% are going back to paying capital and interest.

Mr Hayes also claimed that other EU countries are only now going into second Covid-19 lockdowns in a much more economically depressed situation.

The Department of Finance said it noted the EBA decision and that payment breaks continue to be available on a case-by-case basis in Ireland as one of a suite of measures lenders offer to customers facing difficulties. 

"At a meeting in September with the Tánaiste, Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, the bank lenders agreed to provided suitable supports, both short term and longer term, to borrowers who are experiencing difficulties on a case-by-case basis," it said in a statement.

"The lenders also agreed to engage proactively and sympathetically with borrowers and have a range of different options in place to help. These include interest only, partial payments or breaks to payments if appropriate."

But Sinn Féin's Finance Spokesman, Pearse Doherty described the EBA decision as very signifiant.

"It is now up to the banks to grab this opportunity and allow some of their customers who need this extra flexibility to avail of it," he said.

"This will protect their customers from having a negative imapct in terms of their credit rating."

He said offering breaks on a case by case scenario does impact on borrowers credit ratings.

Mr Doherty said Sinn Féin had written to all the main banks asking them to take up the opportunity of reinstating the payment break scheme again.

Central Bank

The Central Bank said the EBA decision would have no immediate effect for Irish borrowers, as there is no open national general payment moratoria scheme currently operating here.

It said borrowers in financial distress should continue to engage with their lenders at the earliest opportunity in order to get an individual solution for their circumstances, which may include payment breaks.

"There is no regulatory impediment to lenders offering further payment breaks to borrowers, providing they are appropriate for the individual borrower's circumstances," it said.

It added that there are extensive supports and protections in place for borrowers experiencing repayment difficulties.

The regulator said effective engagement between lenders and distressed borrowers is critical to preventing the build-up of arrears and successful restructuring.