Dry cleaners call for Stormont support to help industry survive pandemic

Dry cleaners and laundry owners have issued a plea for Stormont support, warning that the industry is on its knees with many businesses set to go under.

Dry cleaners and laundry owners have issued a plea for Stormont support, warning that the industry is on its knees with many businesses set to go under.

They have called for a financial package to help them navigate the rest of lockdown, claiming they have slipped through the net of various Covid-19 executive grants schemes.

Laundries and dry cleaners are deemed essential businesses under coronavirus rules so are ineligible for payments given to businesses forced to close during the current restrictions.

But many owners claim they might as well have their doors locked, given the dramatic drop in trade caused by the pandemic.

Most of their traditional customers - hospitality outlets, wedding goers, office workers, holidaymakers - have had no need for their services during lockdown.

Sanjay Khanna, who owns a dry cleaner and launderette in Belfast city centre, said the current lockdown has been the worst, with business down 80%.

"Unless a package is put in place we can't carry on the way we are," he told the PA news agency.

"Currently we're all open but there's nothing happening, we're running at a loss, we're paying for power, light, heat whatever it may be, but there's just no business out there at the moment."

Mr Khanna said the current restrictions, which came into effect at the end of December, have pushed many businesses to the brink.

"That's whenever everything sort of hit rock bottom," he said.

"Prior to that there was still a little bit happening. Even though there wasn't the office workers here, people were still maybe going out to restaurants or hotels, all that was still happening to an extent and it kept the oil in the cogs going, but at the minute that's all dried up. So we need help now."

Mr Khanna said most dry cleaners did not meet the eligibility criteria for a support scheme designed for supply chain businesses affected by the forced closure of their main customers.

To qualify for payments, businesses must show that their turnover has dropped by at least 40% as a result of the closure of other businesses.

Mr Khanna said most dry cleaners fall short of that threshold because their custom comes from a variety of sources, with the closures of hospitality outlets just one of many reasons their turnover has plummeted.

"For our industry to survive it would need some sort of financial package in place that the businesses can carry on, regardless of what's coming through the door," he said.

"It means they can know they'll still be in business this time next year. At this rate there will be a lot of guys going to the wall."

Stephen Coates works for a company - William Clements Chemicals - that supplies the dry cleaning industry in Northern Ireland.

He has been helping with efforts to organise the sector to speak with one voice when lobbying Stormont ministers for help.

"The dry cleaning industry at the minute is basically on its knees," he said.

"We in the supply end can see that - if the dry cleaners aren't doing any business, I'm not doing any business.

"Eighty per cent of our business has gone. We've appealed to the executive to put in some sort of financial package - that has fallen on deaf ears at the moment."

The finance and economy departments operate a number of different coronavirus business support schemes between them.

In additional to schemes for specific sectors, financial relief is also on offer on a more generalised basis through initiatives such the wage support/furlough scheme and relief offered on business rates bills.

In response to the dry cleaning industry's concerns, the Department of Finance made clear its scheme for businesses forced to close during lockdown was governed by a set eligibility list.

A spokeswoman highlighted that Finance Minister Conor Murphy had repeatedly urged other Executive colleagues to come forward with proposals for supporting other exposed sectors of the economy.

"The Department of Finance's Localised Restrictions Support Scheme was created to provide financial help to businesses which have been required to close, or where the business service provided at their premises has been directly curtailed, under the Health Protection Regulations," she said.

"Dry cleaners are listed as essential retail under the Health Protection Regulations and are not required to close. The Finance Minister continues to urge Executive Ministers to bring forwards proposals to use available funding, particularly for those who to date haven't received support."

A Department for the Economy spokesman said the executive and UK Government had introduced a wide range of business support schemes to support the economy during the pandemic. He noted that eligible dry cleaners could secure support from the supply chain scheme.

"To date, the Department for the Economy has provided over £370 million of lifeline support to over 30,000 businesses and individuals and is currently delivering millions of pounds to thousands more," he said.

The spokesman added: "Whilst the Executive and the Department for the Economy continue to receive calls for specific targeted support, it is not possible to design and fund schemes for every sector of business or employment group across our society. Ultimately however, it will be for the Executive collectively to determine how any new or additional Covid related funding should be allocated."