Shoppers have been urged not to “rush at once” to apply for Northern Ireland’s high street stimulus programme.
The £145m package will see all those aged over 18 eligible for a £100 pre-paid card to spend on the high street, aimed at supporting local businesses which have been devastated by Covid.
But as the scheme opened to applications online yesterday morning, a number of people used social media to complain that were experiencing difficulties in applying for the card on the NI Direct site.
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Some said the site had crashed, while others had not immediately received a verification email after entering their details.
The News Letter attempted to access the website several times yesterday morning to be met with an error message indicating servers could not keep up with the volume of queries, causing the site to crash.
By lunchtime, the website could be loaded to allow an email address to be entered.
Last night Stormont’s Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said that the problems were quickly resolved.
He said: “Nearly 15% of the population has now started their applications for the Spend Local card. This is an excellent first day.
“We were always clear that demand for the Spend Local card would be extremely high.
“There is still ground to cover and this is why we have allowed four weeks for people to apply. Everyone will have enough time to apply for their card. But the figures so far have been extraordinary.”
In total there were 475,081 applications, with 96,986 of those completed yesterday.
Mr Lyons earlier told the BBC: “We always knew there was going to be a huge demand and that is why we had system in place that allowed up to 50,000 per hour to use the system.
“We put additional safeguarding measures in place so that whenever you went online and put in your email address, that the email would not be sent out to you until there was space and capacity within the system because the last thing that we wanted was to see the system overwhelmed.
“So, although some people had a bit of a wait to get onto the website and a bit of a wait for the email itself, the website was always running, it was always open and it is working.
“I know there was significant demand earlier, the issues have been resolved and the applications are now progressing through our system.”
Mr Lyons added: “This is above and beyond anything we had expected on the first day but such is the interest in this and the desire that people have to help those local businesses that suffered so much during the pandemic.”
All applicants will be asked to provide their name, address, age, gender, disability status, national insurance number, email address and telephone number.
The application portal will remain open until October 25, with the first cards arriving in the post on the week beginning October 4.
The cards will be valid until November 30.
Asked about early problems with the website, Mr Lyons said: “It was sorted out very quickly.”
“Nothing like this has ever been done before. 1.5 million people are eligible to apply for a card at this time. We always had expected there would be huge demand.”
Eugene Donnelly, owner of Old Time Favourites sweet shop in Belfast, said he believed that the scheme could help to restore business which was lost during Covid lockdowns.
He said: “I think it is a brilliant idea for retail.
“It is a real stimulus for the high street which has been under pressure from internet shopping, especially during lockdown.
“I hope customers come in and they can spend anything from a pound right up.
“We are hoping our footfall will increase.”
Meanwhile, as applications began flooding in, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford warned the Assembly that the Stormont stimulus initiative could be money spent in vain if the Executive decides to trigger a circuit breaker lockdown next month.
l Morning View, page 16