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We thought it would be useful to summarise some of the measures the UK Government has implemented in an effort to support businesses as they navigate the national emergency that is COVID-19.
Please appreciate that the comments below are based on our understanding of preliminary guidance from Government. We will update this document as further information becomes available – last updated Thursday 4 March 2021
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme online portal launched on 20 April 2020, with claims being paid within 6 working days. All UK employers, who cannot maintain their current workforce because their operations have been severely affected by Coronavirus, are eligible to claim financial support under the scheme.
The guidance for employers contains a list of what will need to be provided when making a claim (see below), however it does not ask for evidence that the current workforce cannot be maintained due to operations being severely affected by coronavirus. It is therefore unclear as to what is required of employers in this regard. However, the guidance does state that HMRC reserve the right to retrospectively audit all aspects of a claim.
The maximum grant will be calculated per employee and is the lower of:
- 80% of ‘an employee's regular wage’; and
- £2,500 per month.
The scheme has the flexibility to bring furloughed employees back to work part time with the government continuing to partially subsidise the normal hours which they do not work.
Employers can decide the hours and shift patterns their employees will work on their return, and will be responsible for paying their wages in full whilst working. Any working hours arrangement agreed between a business and their employee must cover at least one week and be confirmed to the employee in writing.
If employees are unable to return to work, or employers do not have work for them to do, they can remain on furlough and the employer can continue to claim the grant for their full hours under the existing rules.
The scheme has evolved several times since it was first introduced, with the current level of funding reverting to the government paying 80% of wages up to a cap of £2,500 with employers paying Employers NICs and pension contributions for the period from 1 November 2020 to 30 June 2021.
In July 2021, employers will then be required to contribute 10% of wages to make up 80% of the total (up to a cap of £2,500) with this contribution increasing to 20% in August and September.
The scheme is due to cease on 30 September 2021.
Fees, commission and bonuses should not be included.
Please note employers can top up wages to beyond the scheme maximum thresholds if they wish, but there is no requirement to do this.
What Employers need to do
- designate affected employees as “furloughed workers”, and notify employees of this change, noting that changing the status of employees will remain subject to existing employment law and, depending on the employment contract, may be subject to negotiation. Once “furloughed”, these employees will not be able to undertake work; and
- submit information to HMRC about the employees that have been furloughed and their earnings through a new online portal (HMRC will set out further details on the information required).
When employers are making decisions in relation to the furloughed process, it is recommended they seek advice of an employment lawyer.
Eligible Employees you can claim for
Furloughed employees must have been on your PAYE payroll and notified to HMRC on a Real Time Information (RTI) submission on or before 30 October 2020 for claims up to 30 April 2021 (or 2 March 2021 for claims from 1 May 2021 onwards) and can be on any type of contract, including:
- full-time employees;
- part-time employees;
- employees on agency contracts; and
- employees on flexible or zero-hour contracts.
The scheme is no longer open for claims for periods on or before 31 October 2020.
To be eligible, when on furlough, an employee can not undertake work for or on behalf of the business. This includes providing services or generating revenue.
If an employee is working, but on reduced hours, or for reduced pay, they will not be eligible for this scheme and you will have to continue paying the employee through your payroll and pay their salary subject to the terms of the employment contract you agreed.
Employees whose pay varies
If the employee’s salary varies (e.g. staff on zero- hour contracts) and they have been employed for a full twelve months prior to the claim, employers claim for the higher of either:
- the same month’s earning from the previous year; and
- average monthly earnings from the 2019-20 tax year.
Employees who have worked less than a year
If the employee has been employed for less than a year, you can claim for an average of their monthly earnings since they started work. If the employee only started shortly prior to being furloughed, use a pro-rata for their earnings so far to claim.
How to claim
Employers (or their agents that are authorised to act for PAYE matters) need to calculate the amount they are seeking to claim in accordance with the actual payroll amounts (either shortly before or during running payroll) and will need:
- Employer PAYE reference number;
- the number of employees being furloughed;
- NI number of furloughed employees;
- Unique Tax Reference number for the business;
- the claim period (start and end date);
- amount claimed (per the minimum length of furloughing of 3 consecutive weeks);
- bank account number and sort code;
- contact name; and
- phone number.
Please note HMRC will retain the right to retrospectively audit all aspects of any claim and will monitor employers after the scheme has closed.
When claiming for part-time furloughed hours, employers need to submit the usual hours an employee would be expected to work in a claim period and the actual hours worked. These claims must be made for a minimum period of a week.
Claims must be submitted within 14 calendar days of the month they relate to, unless this falls on a weekend then it is the next working day.
Self Employed Income Support Scheme
The Chancellor has confirmed that the Government will pay self-employed individuals, who have been adversely effected by COVID-19, a fourth and fifth taxable grant. The claim window for the third grant closed on 29 January 2021.
The fourth grant will be calculated at 80% of their three months’ average trading profits, paid out in a single instalment, capped at £7,500. This latest grant will also include 2019/2020 tax returns and will be open to individuals who became self-employed during the 2019/2020 tax year. The rest of the eligibility criteria remain unchanged. Claims will open for the fourth grant from the end of April 2021.
The fifth grant will be calculated based on the reduction of the businesses turnover during the 2020/2021 tax year As a result, the grant will be the lower of:
- 80% of three months’ average trading profits, capped at £7,500, where there is more than a 30% reduction in turnover;
- 30% of three months’ average trading profits, capped at £2,850, for those with a turnover reduction of less than 30%
To be eligible you must:
- be self-employed or a member of a partnership;
- have traded in the tax year 2019/20;
- have an ongoing trade (or would have except for COVID-19);
- intend to trade in the tax year 2020/21 (commencing 6 April 2020);
- have self-employed trading profits of less than £50,000 in either the 2018/19 tax year or in the average of the 2016/17 to 2018/19 tax years; and
- receive the majority of your total income from self-employment (over the same period).
Self-employed individuals should check their eligibility with HMRC using their Unique Tax Reference (UTR) number and National Insurance number here: https://www.tax.service.gov.uk/self-employment-support/enter-unique-taxpayer-reference.
If you are eligible, you will be told the date that you will be able to make a claim from and you will be asked to add your contact details. If you are deemed not to be eligible, you can ask HMRC to review the online determination.
Self Employed Income Tax Deferral
If you are a self-employed taxpayer, your payments on account normally due on 31 July 2020 will automatically be deferred until January 2021. No penalties or interest for late payment will be charged in this deferral period.
Invest NI – COVID-19 Equity Investment Fund
The Minister for the Economy announced on 8 September 2020 that Invest NI is launching a new £5 million COVID-19 Equity Investment Fund (CEIF).
CEIF will help early stage high-growth potential businesses in Northern Ireland access financing to progress their business plans and prepare for recovery and growth.
Support, up to a maximum of 50% of the funding round, is available:
- through equity investment or convertible loan notes of up to a maximum of £700,000; and
- on pari passu terms (meaning on substantially the same terms) as other investors in the funding round.
Support in excess of £700,000 may be available by way of a commercial loan.
CEIF is open to all early stage high-growth potential businesses in Northern Ireland unable to access funding after maximising investment from all other funding sources, including institutional investors, private investors, the Future Fund and Invest NI’s Access to Finance funds.
Invest NI – COVID-19 Business Planning & Financial Planning Grant
The £2m COVID-19 Business & Financial Planning Grant will support micro and SME businesses to engage an experienced consultant to carry out a review and health check of the business and develop a strategic recovery plan with financial forecasts.
The scheme will provide up to £8,000 to eligible businesses to contribute toward the cost of a consultant to undertake a business and financial review to plan for recovery.
The grant can be used towards 80% of the eligible costs of an external consultant to:
- develop a financial and business plan
- help you assess your business model
- consider options to secure the future of the business
- identify how the business will recover and grow in the longer term.
To be eligible you must be a micro or SME business which is either an existing Invest NI client, or a business operating in one of the following Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) sectors:
- Information and Communication
- Professional, Scientific and Technical activities
Your business must also have an annual turnover of at least £500k, and have experienced a 40% reduction in turnover during the period April-June 2020
Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme
The scheme went live on 23 March 2020 and will be open for applications until 31 March 2021.
It will be provided by the British Business Bank through participating providers, with the aim of supporting the continued provision of finance to UK businesses during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The scheme provides the lender with a Government-backed guarantee against 80 per cent of the facility. Please note the borrower always remains 100 per cent liable for the debt.
The Government will also cover the first 12 months of interest payments and any lender-levied fees, so businesses will benefit from no up-front costs and lower initial repayments. The business remains liable for repayments of the capital. The maximum value of a facility provided under the scheme will be £5m.
- term facilities;
- invoice finance facilities; and
- asset finance facilities.
To be eligible you must:
- be UK based, with turnover of no more than £45m per annum;
- generate more than 50 per cent of your turnover from trading activity; and
- have a borrowing proposal which, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, would be considered viable by the lender, and for which the lender believes the provision of finance will enable the business to trade out of any short-to-medium term difficulty.
The Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme has been temporarily suspended.
Finance terms are up to six years for term loans and asset finance, and up to three years for overdrafts and invoice finance.
Must Borrowers Provide Security?
It has been confirmed that at the discretion of the lender, the scheme may be used for unsecured lending for facilities of £250,000 and under. The Government has now confirmed that personal guarantees cannot be taken for facilities below £250,000.
For facilities in excess of £250,000 lenders may require a borrower enter into a personal guarantee to cover the potential 20 per cent loss to the lender (i.e. the balance not guaranteed by the scheme). Please note Primary Residential Property (PPR) cannot be taken as security or to support a personal guarantee under the scheme.
To apply for this facility, businesses should approach a participating lender to discuss their borrowing needs. Link below:
These lenders will pay a fee to access the scheme.
Localised Restrictions Support Scheme
The NI Executive will also provide financial support to local businesses which have been required to close or have had business activities at their premises curtailed. Businesses must meet the following conditions in order to apply online from 19 October 2020:
- Must operate from a property within Northern Ireland;
- Be an eligible business including café, restaurant, hotel, close contact services; and
- Must have been open to the public and trading at the start of the restriction.
Eligible businesses can claim a grant based on their Net Annual Value (‘NAV’) of their business premises, as follows:
- Property with a NAV of £15,000 or less: £1,600 for the initial two-week period and £800 for each subsequent week that the restrictions apply for;
- Property with a NAV between £15,001 - £51,000: £2,400 for the initial two-week period and £1,200 for each subsequent week that the restrictions apply for; or
- Property with a NAV over £51,001: £3,200 for the initial two-week period and £1,600 for each subsequent week that restrictions apply for.
Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme
The Chancellor also announced a scheme to assist large businesses, which have previously been caught in the ‘stranded middle’ between the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility.
This scheme is open to businesses with a turnover of more than £45m and will provide up to £200m of finance (limited to £50m for asset finance or invoice finance). Please note the borrower always remains 100 per cent liable for the debt.
It has been confirmed that the Government will provide a guarantee to the lender of up to 80 per cent for facilities under this scheme.
These facilities will not be interest free or fee free (as they are under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme for SME’s). However, borrowers will benefit from a proportionate reduction in pricing as a result of lenders receiving capital and risk benefits.
Facilities available under the scheme include term loans, revolving credit facilities, asset finance and invoice finance. Finance terms will range from 3 months up to 3 years.
Note that if borrowing exceeds £50m under this scheme, restrictions will apply for dividend payments, senior pay and share buy-backs during the period.
To be eligible:
- your business must be based in the UK;
- your business must have an annual turnover of more than £45m;
- you must have a borrowing proposal which the lender would consider viable, were it not for the current pandemic, and for which the lender believes the provision of finance will enable the business to trade out of any short-term to medium-term difficulty; and
- you must not have received a facility under the Bank of England’s COVID Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), CBILS, or the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).
The scheme launched on 21 April 2020 and applications can be made until 31 March 2021 here - https://www.british-business-bank.co.uk/ourpartners/coronavirus-business-interruption-loan-schemes/clbils/clbils-for-businesses-and-advisors/
If your business is eligible, it is recommended that you contact your lender urgently to discuss any potential application.
On 20 April 2020, the Chancellor announced a new Future Fund to support the UK’s innovative businesses currently affected by COVID-19, specifically those businesses that have been unable to access other government business support programmes because they are either pre-revenue or pre-profit and typically rely on equity investment.
The scheme will deliver an initial commitment of £250m of new government funding which will be unlocked by private investment on a match-funded basis. The government scheme, which will be developed in partnership with the British Business Bank with the intention of launching for applications in May, will initially be open until the end of September.
The Future Fund will provide government loans (until 31 January 2021) to UK based companies ranging from £125,000 to £5m, subject to at least equal match funding from private investors. The company must also have raised at least £250,000 in equity investment from third party investors in the last 5 years.
Bounce Back Loan Scheme
The Bounce Back Loan Scheme launched on 4 May 2020. This scheme is designed to help small to medium size businesses with loans in the range of £2,000 to £50,000, subject to a capped level equivalent to 25 per cent of business turnover.
Loans under this scheme will be 100 per cent guaranteed by government, with no capital repayments for the first 12 months and with no fees or interest to pay for that period. Thereafter, the applicable interest rate is 2.5 per cent per annum and loan terms will be up to six years.
Businesses will be liable for repayment in full of any loan advanced through the scheme.
The scheme will be delivered through accredited lenders but will not be subject to a credit review process, rather it will simply require a short self-certified online application form. It is government expectation that loans will be processed within 24 hours.
To be eligible for a loan under this scheme, your business must be based in the UK, negatively affected by coronavirus and not an ‘undertaking in difficulty’ at 31 December 2019. Applications can be made online until 31 March 2021 here https://www.british-business-bank.co.uk/ourpartners/coronavirus-business-interruption-loan-schemes/bounce-back-loans/current-accredited-lenders-and-partners/
Note that a business cannot apply if already claiming under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, though it is possible to transfer from that scheme to the Bounce Back Loan Scheme.
Recovery Loan Scheme
The Recovery Loan Scheme will be in place from 6 April 2021 to 31 December 2021. This scheme is designed to businesses access to loans and other kinds of finance up to £10 million. The government will provide guarantees of 80% of the finance. Businesses will be able to access term loans and overdrafts over £25,001 and/or invoice finance and asset finance arrangements over £1,000.
To be eligible:
- the business needs to be trading in the UK;
- is a viable business or would be viable business were it not for the pandemic;
- has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic; and
- is not in collective insolvency proceedings.
Term loans and overdrafts will be available between £25,001 and £10 million per business.
Invoice finance and asset finance will be available between £1,000 and £10 million per business.
Finance terms are up to six years for term loans and asset finance facilities. For overdrafts and invoice finance facilities, terms will be up to three years.
COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility
Under this scheme, the Bank of England will buy short term debt from larger companies. The scheme is intended to support companies that have been affected by a short term funding squeeze, and allow them to finance short term liabilities.
Companies and their finance subsidiaries that make a material contribution to the UK economy are able to participate in the facility. They must have been in sound financial health prior to the shock – a short term or long term rating of investment grade, as at 1 March 2020, or equivalent.
Commercial paper issued by banks, building societies, insurance companies and other financial sector entities regulated by the Bank of England or Financial Conduct Authority are not eligible.
VAT Deferral Scheme
VAT payments for all businesses that would normally arise during the period from 20 March 2020 to 30 June 2020 will be deferred. This is an automatic deferral with no applications required, however, businesses will need to cancel their direct debit mandate if they wish to prevent the VAT liability being collected by HMRC. Where VAT has been deferred, businesses were originally given until 31 March 2021 to pay any liabilities that have accumulated during the deferral period, with no interest/penalties being charged on the deferred amount.
VAT registered businesses that availed of the VAT deferral now have the option to repay the deferred liabilities over 11 months’ interest free instead of a lump sum on 31 March 2021. In order to apply businesses will need to opt-in to the VAT Deferral New Payment Scheme via the online service between 23 February 2021 and closes on 21 June 2021.
The temporary reduction in VAT for businesses in the Hospitability & Tourism sector from 20% to 5%, which was due to expire on 12 January 2021 will now be extended to 30 September 2021. Following which it will increase to 12.5% for a further six months before reverting to the standard rate of 20% from 1 April 2022.
A link is included below to our more detailed article on the VAT deferral scheme:
Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
Employers with fewer than 250 employees are now able to reclaim up to 2 weeks’ Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) per employee (starting from the first day of the sickness period) in relation to absences due to COVID-19.
This scheme covers SSP paid to employees from 13 March 2020 in cases where the employee had coronavirus, had symptoms or was self-isolating because someone they live with had symptoms or, for payments from 16 April 2020, when the employee was shielding because of coronavirus. Employees do not need a “fit to work note” from their GP or medical practitioner for you to make a claim.
Please note the number of employees will be determined by the number of people the business employed as of 28 February 2020. Employers should maintain the following records for at least 3 years following a claim:
- The reason why an employee could not work;
- Details of each period when an employee could not work (including start and end dates);
- Details of the SSP qualifying days when an employee could not work;
- National Insurance numbers of all employees who have been paid SSP.
SSP reclaims can be made online here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-back-statutory-sick-pay-paid-to-your-employees-due-to-coronavirus-COVID-19
Employers will also need to confirm that the amount of SSP rebate they are claiming will not take them above the temporary EU COVID-19 Temporary State Aid framework ceiling which is €800,000 for most employers, however there are lower ceilings for employers in Agriculture (€100,000) and Aquaculture and Fisheries (€120,000).
Support for Businesses Paying Tax – Time to Pay with HMRC
All businesses and self-employed people can be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC’s Time to Pay service. This can allow businesses and self-employed people extended periods of time to pay outstanding amounts.
Separately, the Government has confirmed that it will be cancelling penalties and interest where you have administrative difficulties.
These arrangements are agreed on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to individual circumstances of each business. HMRC has a dedicated helpline to assist (0800 024 1222).
The NI Executive have announced an emergency rates package totalling £313m to assist Northern Ireland ratepayers impacted by COVID-19.
For businesses, there will be a four-month holiday for all business ratepayers (excluding public sector and utilities). This means that no rates will be charged for April, May, June and July 2020 for business ratepayers.
In addition, the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic will pay no rates for the full financial year up until 31 March 2021. Those sectors are:
- hospitality, tourism and leisure
- retail (excluding certain supermarkets and off-licences)
- Belfast City Airport, Belfast International Airport and the City of Derry Airport
For domestic ratepayers, their rates bills (which were due to be issued in April 2020) will now not be issued until June 2020. Ratepayers can still choose to pay their bill in monthly instalments between June 2020 and March 2021, with monthly direct debit plans automatically updated.
The NI Executive has announced a 12.5 per cent reduction in non-domestic property rates for 2020/21.
The grant scheme announced by the Northern Ireland Executive will come in two parts:
- an immediate grant of £10,000 will be provided to all small businesses who are eligible for the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme; that is all businesses with a Rateable Net Annual Value (NAV) up to £15,000; and
- an immediate grant of £25,000 will be provided to companies in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors with a NAV between £15,000 and £51,000.
The first payments under the £10,000 Small Business Support Grant Scheme have already been made to those eligible businesses who paid their business rates by Direct Debit (as their bank details were already held by LPS). The remaining payments will be sent as soon possible after bank account details are provided through the online form.
Applications for both grant schemes closed on 20 May 2020.
Grant income received by a business is taxable therefore the Small Business Grants, and Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grants will be subject to tax.
NI Micro Businesses Hardship Fund
The NI Executive has launched a new NI Micro-business Hardship Fund to help Northern Ireland based micro-businesses and social enterprises unable to access other regional and national COVID-19 support measures.
The funding is available to businesses unable to access the £10,000, £25,000 and COVID-19 Childcare Support grant schemes.
The level of Hardship Fund grant will be up to £10,000 for businesses which pay business rates on premises and up to £5,000 for those that do not pay business rates. Businesses within each category will receive the same amount.
Only one grant will be paid to each eligible business, irrespective of how many properties the business occupies.
To be eligible the business must:
- be based in Northern Ireland;
- have employed between one and nine employees paid via PAYE at 29 February 2020. Businesses, where the sole employee is the business owner or company director, are not eligible for this scheme; and
- have experienced a reduction in turnover in excess of 40% (since 1 March 2020) as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic or associated Government restrictions.
Claims can be made from 20 May 2020 until 16 June 2020 here https://www.investni.com/ni-micro-business-hardship-fund?_ga=2.21763323.1117612680.1589914079-835843509.1584561303
Making Tax Digital (MTD)
The Government has also extended the ‘soft landing period’ in which VAT registered businesses must comply with the second phase of MTD (the requirement to introduce digital links between all elements of the software used to create the VAT returns). The new deadline is the beginning of the first VAT period starting on or after 1 April 2021.
Grant Thornton will continue to closely monitor the evolving situation regarding COVID-19 and will issue further updated guidance for businesses when received from Government or HMRC.
In the meantime, you may also find the following links helpful:
UK Government: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-COVID-19/COVID-19-support-for-businesses
British Business Bank: https://www.british-business-bank.co.uk/ourpartners/coronavirus-business-interruption-loan-scheme-cbils/accredited-lenders/
Republic of Ireland assistance: https://www.grantthornton.ie/insights/blogs/COVID-19---government-supports/