By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE government will expand its unemployment assistance programme to self-employed people outside of the tourism industry, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest announced yesterday.
Speaking in the House of Assembly, the deputy prime minister revealed a number of planned measures to bolster workers who are struggling due to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also painted a bleak picture of the future, adding that because of the “seismic halt” of the country’s tourism sector, the country may end up in a more dire condition if the COVID-19 crisis continues in the medium-term. Officials had earlier predicted an economic loss of $1 billion by mid-July because of the crisis.
He did not say what officials now project the longer-term fall-out to be.
The extension of aid to licenced self-employed outside of the tourism sector involves a Ministry of Finance initial budget of $5.9m.
The Department of Inland Revenue, he said, has 7,000 business owners on record who fall into this category.
Recognising that thousands more have been adversely impacted by the aggressive actions taken by the government to curb COVID-19 cases, they too will receive $200 per week for the length of the quarantine period which at present will last until April 8.
Previously, the government had only announced help for the self-employed directly connected to the tourism sector. This assistance is in the form of payouts of $200 per week for eight weeks.
Mr Turnquest said: “Today, I am pleased to advise that the government will expand this programme to other licensed self-employed persons who are impacted by the COVID-19 emergency orders.
“Given the aggressive actions taken by the government in the interest of public safety, these self-employed persons, outside of the tourism trade, are also facing the complete loss of income and the challenge of meeting their financial obligations.
“They too will receive a benefit payment of $200 per week for the length of the quarantine period which at present will go at least until April 8.
“For clarity, I wish to emphasise again that this benefit for self-employed persons outside of the tourism trade will be paid for a period corresponding to the period of the ongoing emergency orders,” the finance minister also said.
“NIB will administer this expansion. They will announce the related steps for these persons and applications for this element, which should begin by next Tuesday, April 7.
“The Department of Inland Revenue has indicated that there are just over 7,000 self-employed persons across the Bahamas who meet these criteria. The Ministry of Finance is budgeting an initial $5.9m to cover these additional self-employed persons impacted by the current lockdown.
“Like many other governments around the world, this administration is compelled to help its citizens through this very tough time. In this first instance, income support is vital to those whose primary sources of income have been eviscerated by the economic fall-out of COVID-19.”
Self-employed people seeking this benefit must ensure they meet certain requirements.
These include a valid business licence issued by the Department of Inland Revenue and no additional employees. A sole proprietor with employees can apply for the government’s Small Business Continuity Loan programme.
The self-employed person must also provide a copy of their National Insurance Board card or other government ID with their NIB number.
They must not be in full time employment and thus eligible for other NIB employment benefits and they must be able to demonstrate active income from their related business in either January or February 2020. This could for example be in the form of a copy of a bank statement showing business related inflow for the month. This provision is to ensure that only persons with active businesses obtain consideration.
They must also either be registered as self-employed with NIB or become registered at application for this benefit.
Mr Turnquest further announced assistance for Family Island administrators.
With airports closed, movement restricted, and income streams being disrupted, Mr Turnquest said many Family Island communities are feeling isolated and afraid.
The Ministry of Finance is therefore allocating $1.8m to support the Family Islands specifically to be used for any COVID-19 related expenditure. The new allocation is in keeping with the government’s commitment to reprioritise existing resources and to provide the necessary support to keep communities safe.
“The allocations for the different islands range from $10,000 to $325,000. The average allocation is approximately $76,000,” he said.
“Strict financial management protocols have been put in place to administer the use of these funds. Under no circumstances are the COVID-19 Emergency Order Budgetary Allocations allowed to be utilised for the normal, routine Family Island local and central government expenditures.
“This allocation will enable them to procure any COVID-19 related items, in line with the Ministry of Health’s guidance and protocols, to manage this pandemic at the community level. Unused amounts at the end of the COVID-19 emergency period are to be returned to the Treasury Department.”
In terms of the projected harm to the economy, Mr Turnquest said: “Our original economic estimates for the fall-out from COVID-19 projected $1bn in losses in our worst-case scenario. “Unfortunately, because of the complete shutdown of the tourism industry, the financial impact on the economy may end up being much more dire than this scenario if the threat of COVID-19 persists over the medium-term. There is no doubt about it, there are going to be very challenging days ahead for all of us.
“Based on the changing dynamics, we are working to revise our fiscal forecasts and to do so as quickly and as comprehensively as possible. This is an ongoing process. Our initial assessment was based on a four-month outlook to the end of the fiscal year. We are reviewing these projections in light of new realities as well as the new tax credit and tax deferral programme.
“We continue to work on longer term assessments, taking us into the new fiscal year and beyond. As is our practice, we will provide an update to the Bahamian people on what this new and evolving situation will mean for our fiscal outlook, with the full understanding that our priority remains first to ensure all necessary resources are made available to support the physical health and welfare of Bahamians and second, to do as much as we can to retain employment, and cushion the unprecedented economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”