A voucher scheme that would provide every household in Northern Ireland with £200 to spend in local shops is one of the measures proposed by the Stormont Executive.

A budget of £95 million is being set aside for what is called the High Street Voucher Scheme.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy told the Assembly this afternoon that it be early next year before the plan becomes operational.

The power-sharing Executive is also ring-fencing £150 million to provide businesses with rates relief in the next financial year.

Manufacturing industries that have not benefitted from the rates holiday currently in operation will be able to access a new £20 million fund.

Funding in place for the hospitality sector will be extended during the two-week lockdown period that will begin next Friday. B&Bs that missed out on earlier packages are now on course to receive help under the new proposals.

Another significant tranche of funding - £44.3 million - will provide a £200 heating payment to people with disabilities on the higher rate of social security allowances and older people on pension credit.

£26.5 million is set aside to provide free school meals payments over Christmas and during midterm and Easter holiday breaks.

Disagreement between the DUP and the other four government parties had curtailed the Executive's ability to respond to the second wave of the pandemic.  

But last week the DUP made a policy u-turn and accepted the scientific and medical advice that further restrictions were required.


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Over the weekend Mr Murphy and Economy Minister Diane Dodds and their officials met to draw up a series of compensation plans for affected businesses.

First Minister Arlene Foster and the Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill were part of that dialogue.

The compensation measures plan is an effort to address the widespread public criticism of the Executive's performance in recent times.

The Department of Health said another three people have died of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and 280 people have tested positive.

Currently, 438 people are in hospital with the coronavirus, 37 of them in intensive care.

Separately, Northern Ireland's health minister said relying on rapid mass testing alone in the period before Christmas would be a highly risky strategy.

Robin Swann said he wanted to see the North playing a pivotal role in UK pilots on mass testing and has written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to request four million rapid tests.

He told the NI Assembly: "Reliance on mass testing alone would represent a high-risk approach in the run-up to Christmas.

"It may not be viable for logistical or test supply reasons."

He said it would require a "very high degree of population buy in" and present "huge logistical challenges".

There may be scope to target more limited mass testing to high risk areas.

"Mass testing is an exciting development and together with a vaccine it offers great hope of a way out of our nightmare.

"But it is not a panacea, and certainly not at this time and certainly not without restrictions in place before Christmas."

Mr Swann also said for practical purposes it is simply not possible to increase hospital capacity in the short to medium term.

"The key factor here is the supply of staff, and given the specialist skill set required, there is a very long lead time for this.

"While some marginal gains in capacity can be made in specific areas such as ICU, this comes at the cost of reduced capacity elsewhere in the system, as it involves the redeployment of existing staff.

"In addition, when doubling time for cases is seven to 10 days, even a doubling of hospital capacity where that achievable would buy only a limited period of relief before intervention was required."