Statement by the Minister for Economy and Transport

 

TITLE Covid-19 response
 

DATE

 

20 May 2020

 

BY

 

Ken Skates MS, Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales

 

Llywydd, last Friday the First Minister set out the framework that will lead Wales out of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The document we published set out how and when decisions on the easing of lockdown will be made in our economy, in our communities and in our public services over the coming weeks and months.

As Ministers, we are supporting that work.

My task is to ensure that when the time is right, our businesses, our transport network and our skills system are ready not only to adapt and transition to the post-Coronavirus world but, crucially, that we are ready and able to Build Back Better for the sake of this and future generations.

A key plank of this work is ensuring we don’t pull away too soon the critical economic underpinning of the lockdown – the support the UK Government has introduced through the Job Retention Scheme.

The Job Retention Scheme has been essential to enabling large parts of our economy to ‘hibernate’ through this crisis.

None of the devolved governments acting on their own had the fiscal fire-power to secure incomes and livelihoods in the way the Job Retention Scheme has been.

It is essential the Job Retention Scheme is not withdrawn or scaled back before businesses have been able to properly restart their operations.

That was the message the Finance Minister and I sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a joint letter last week and I welcome the subsequent steps he then took to extend the scheme until October.

While it provides an important window for us to think about the future, I urge the UK Government to involve us in those discussions meaningfully.

We are all acutely aware that some sectors have been hit harder than others.

That for some, lockdown stared sooner and will end later.

As we approach the Summer season, we are all aware of the impact Coronavirus is having on the tourism and hospitality sector.

One of the more recent concerns that has been raised with me is the issue of prompt payments to small businesses.  I urge all large organisations – both public and private – to play their part in supporting those smaller businesses by making payments on time.

But the conversation needs to begin with the UK Government now about the future.

About how economic life will function after the Job Retention Scheme and the self-employment scheme has been taken away.

In Wales, our priority has not changed – public health and controlling the pandemic remain our number one priorities.

That is why, on 14 May I issued an important reminder to anyone considering travelling to Wales.

“Please stay at home”.

Visitors will be welcome with open arms to Wales once we are through this crisis, but for now we must tackle the virus by staying home.

A major part of our work has been to support businesses through this pandemic.

Our package of support is the most generous for businesses anywhere in the UK including:

  • £100 million in loans to more than 1,000 businesses through the Development Bank of Wales;
  • A £400 million Economic Resilience Fund grant scheme – which for phase 1 has received more than 9,500 applications, with over 6,000 offers already made to date worth over a £100m;
  • Non-domestic rates based grant support for small businesses and businesses operating in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors, awarding to date 51,100 grants worth more than £626m.

A total package of £1.7 billion worth 2.7% of GDP.

On 27 April, we paused the Economic Resilience Fund to give us an opportunity to consider where further support could make the biggest impact.

Not only to help those businesses we haven’t already reached, but also to consider what support all businesses will need through the ongoing rescue phase as well as into restart and recovery phase, as lockdown measures are eased in line with last Friday’s framework.

That work is advancing well and we are finalising the details on the next phase of the Economic Resilience Fund.

I expect to re-open the Economic Resilience Fund eligibility checker for new applications by the middle of June, allowing companies time to prepare their applications.  Following that, I expect to open for full applications later in the month.

This will enable access to the remaining £100m of the £300m already approved and allocated to support micro businesses, small and medium enterprises and large businesses.

In terms of eligibility, Phase 2 of the Fund will operate in the same way as Phase 1 but with an update to the micro scheme.  This will enable limited companies who are not VAT registered to access the Fund, something which so many small businesses have been calling for.

In addition, we are also working with our partners in local government to develop further support proposals i for those not yet reached, for example Start Up businesses.

We have also supplemented the Government’s Discretionary Assistance Fund, which supports people who are recently employed but not eligible for the Job Retention Scheme, as well as the self-employed.

I will, of course Llywydd, continue to keep Members up-dated as matters progress.

In the meantime, the UK Government has a critical role in expanding its support for strategic businesses still struggling to find appropriate support.

In particular, I have asked the UK Government to look again at what help it can provide to safeguard businesses critical to our national economic security such as Tata Steel and Airbus.

Earlier today, the Minister for Education outlined a Covid-19 post-16 sector resilience plan to give education providers a clear framework for planning and delivering our employability and skills response.

Employability support is vital in times of economic uncertainty.

One year on from its official launch, the Working Wales service has directly assisted more than 31,500 adults and over 6,000 young people who are looking for employability support.

That service has been adapted in response to the pandemic and has extended its web-chat, text messaging and call service facilities to best meet the needs of users.

But it is not the only change we have made.

For apprentices we have developed online learning modules to ensure they are able to continue to progress through their learning.

For our traineeship learners we have developed digital learning packages and maintained their training allowances.

For those further from the labour market, our Community Employability Programmes have adapted their delivery to continue providing outreach in our most deprived and vulnerable communities for young people and adults.

For those closer to the labour market, support is being provided through ReAct, Jobs Growth Wales and the Employability Skills Programme.

And for those in work, the Union Learning Fund with support from Wales TUC, is delivering immediate skills solutions and support to workers during and after the Coronavirus crisis.

None of this would be possible without the support of our social partners.

On 14 May, together with The First Minister, I met members of the Shadow Social Partnership Council to discuss the challenges we all face over the coming months.

To discuss how we lift the lockdown safely.

To discuss how we can take advantage of – and move towards – an economy that sees us travel less but work smarter.

Last week I also met transport unions, passenger groups, public transport operators, stakeholder representatives and Transport for Wales to discuss the guidance we are developing to help prepare our public transport network for the new normal.

In the short-term, we are considering ways in which we can manage demand for public transport and maintain strict social distancing.

Some of the measures we discussed were:

  • Prioritising use of public transport for key workers;
  • Encouraging greater pre-booking and better planning of travel; 
  • Staggering shift patterns in the public sector and encouraging the private sector to do likewise.

We will publish this guidance in the coming weeks in readiness for any easing of the lockdown that might occur through the next 21-day review of regulations.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week.

We recognise this is a very uncertain and stressful time for businesses and employees.   That is why, as part of our package of advice, we have included information on mental health and wellbeing on our Business Wales website to help businesses leaders take care of themselves and their staff.

These include The Time to Change Wales programme and the Public Health Wales “How are you doing?” campaign.

Mental health is something that is very important to me and I would urge businesses and employees to make use of these invaluable resources.

Llywydd, I just want to end by offering thanks again to members across this chamber for the advice, ideas and counsel they have provided over the last few months.

We will get through this crisis and we will build back better in our economy, in our communities and in our public services.

And we will work together to do it.

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