£1.1bn for Covid-19 included in Stormont spending plans

Stormont's spending plans for the new financial year will see more than £1.1 billion invested in battling Covid-19 and its economic and societal consequences.

The £1.16 billion coronavirus funding includes £430 million for health services and more than £500 million for economic recovery initiatives, such as the high street voucher scheme and a further year of rates relief for certain business sectors.

An additional £100 million will be spent on services for children and young people.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy outlined the allocations as he unveiled the Executive's agreed budget for 2021/22.

"Covid has presented massive challenges but the vaccination programme has been hugely successful and we hope we can soon move towards economic recovery," he said.

"I have allocated significant funding for an economic stimulus and have also prioritised funding to support young people given the huge impact that Covid has had on their wellbeing."

The total Covid-19 sum available to the Executive has increased from the draft budget prepared by Mr Murphy earlier in the year.

This is as a result of several further funding announcements by the Government that have led to uplifts in spending in the region, including those announced in the Chancellor's budget in March.

Those uplifts, along with flexibilities secured from the Treasury to carry 2020/21 funding into this financial year, means Stormont has ended up with more money than originally anticipated to address the impact of the pandemic.

Non-Covid spending however remains essentially flat on last year.

Mr Murphy warned that would result in real terms reductions for everyday public spending.

"Choices will have to be made, public services will have to be prioritised," he said.

The overall budget includes a £13 billion allocation for resource spending and £1.78 billion for capital investments.

The spending plans include more than £12 million to fund an extra 100 PSNI officers.

The level of capital spend was achieved through additional Executive borrowing.

The capital plans include £162.5 million for social housing projects.

A further £100 million is also being allocated to Northern Ireland Water.

A total of £20 million has also been allocated for the Casement Park stadium redevelopment project.

Sign off on the budget at Thursday's Executive meeting came after an eleventh-hour agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the spending plans on Wednesday evening.

Earlier on Wednesday Mr Murphy accused First Minister Arlene Foster of blocking the budget paper from getting on to the Executive agenda.

In response, the DUP claimed Mr Murphy had failed to draw up plans that could command the support of the wider Executive.

Funding for a new compensation scheme for injured victims of the Troubles was among the issues at the heart of the impasse.

While no specific allocation for funding the scheme has been outlined in the budget, Mr Murphy has committed to finding whatever money is required to cover the costs in the coming financial year.

The minister has argued that he cannot allocate a set sum while a row between Belfast and London over who should meet the costs of payments continues.

It has been estimated the cost of the scheme could reach £1.2 billion over its lifetime. The spend in 2021/22 is set to be around £20 million.

The Government has suggested that £100 million of Treasury funding earmarked for issues related to Northern Ireland's "unique circumstances" in the deal to restore Stormont could be used to part-fund the scheme.

Mr Murphy has rejected this proposal, insisting it does not amount to an additional funding commitment.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled that Stormont was under a legal duty to fund the payment scheme.

It made no finding on the source of that funding - i.e. from the current block grant or by way of extra Treasury funding for the region - and urged the Executive and Northern Ireland Office to agree a solution.