Applications for a high street voucher scheme have opened in a bid to boost businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19.
The programme in Northern Ireland aims to help industries such as retail and hospitality recover from the pandemic, and encourage shoppers to visit local businesses.
All residents aged 18 or over are able to apply for the “Spend Local” pre-paid card, which comes loaded with £100 to spend before the end of November.
The website to apply for Stormont’s scheme experienced some technical difficulties as applications opened on Monday morning, with some people reporting on social media that the website had crashed.
Economy minister Gordon Lyons said the applications portal is “robust and ready and it will be able to handle over 1.4 million applications over the course of the four-week period”.
“But we expect early demand to be extremely high,” he added. “Therefore, by being patient and ready with your information, you will be helping yourself and everybody else.”
The first cards should be sent out by 4 October, with online applications open until 25 October. The cards need to be used by 30 November.
At the moment, people can only apply online, but from 11 October telephone services will be available.
All applicants will be asked to provide their name, address, age, gender, disability status, national insurance number, email address and telephone number.
Mr Lyons said in a statement: “This is a big day in the rollout of the High Street scheme.
“Around 1.4 million people are entitled to apply for their Spend Local card, so we expect the portal to be extremely busy in the first few days.
“That is why it is important to remember that the portal will be open for four weeks and that everyone will have enough time to apply for their card. So please be patient.”
The card can be used in any local business that accepts card payments, but is not valid for online orders, gambling or paying for some legal and financial services.
Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neil said last week that the impact of COVID-19 continues to present major challenges for the hospitality industry across the country.
He said: “There is a great deal of uncertainty in the industry at the minute. The pandemic has had a devastating impact right across the sector.
“We welcome the introduction of the High Street Scheme, which is a great opportunity for people to support jobs of friends and family who work in hospitality while enjoying some of the best food and drink in the world.”
People have been warned to be aware of scams in relation to the scheme, with the Department of Economy reminding the public that it will never ask for bank details.