Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
DEPUTY Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said Wednesday it is too early to say if the government will extend its unemployment benefits programme, expressing hope that reopening the tourism sector will return people to work.
Mr Turnquest revealed in the House of Assembly that so far the government has spent $15.4 million to help self-employed people who do not ordinarily qualify for unemployment benefits from the National Insurance Board. He said the government has also spent $37.9 million to help unemployed people who exhausted their standard NIB benefit. In total, 35,593 people have benefited in some way from the government’s unemployment assistance programmes. NIB, meanwhile, has paid out “some $93.3 million directly” to its beneficiaries, he said.
“Combined, these programmes have supported approximately 43,200 persons, and poured some $146.5 million into the domestic economy,” he said.
Asked during a press conference whether there will be a continuation of the programmes, which end at the end of this month, Mr Turnquest said a final decision has not been made.
“At the end of September we will make some decisions based on the resources available,” he said. “At this point it’s a little early to make that definitive statement. The performance for the next month will determine what is available for us to extend the programme and we will make a decision at that time.”
He also said: “We anticipate that the economy is going to start to open at the end of this month. The tourism minister indicated that tourism will open on the 15th (of October) so by then we anticipate that with the loosening up of the economy that is already on the way that will relieve some of the pressure and as the tourism sector kicks in, more people will go back to work which will allow us to utilise the remaining resources that we have budgeted for this programme to go a bit further for those persons who may take a little bit longer to get back to the swing of things. “We will continue to do what we can to support Bahamians as best as we can through the various assistance programmes that are available, either through direct income support, through social services, through the feeding network or any of the other programmes that are available to the government. We will certainly ensure they are funded and do the best we can."
Mr Turnquest also said the country’s foreign reserves are healthy.
“Notwithstanding the fact that we are five months plus into the near full shut down of our primary export sector - the international tourism market - our reserves remain at a fairly healthy $2.1 billion - equal to 38 weeks of import cover and close to levels at the start of the pandemic,” he said. “The position of the Public Treasury is secure, and the viability of the Bahamian dollar and the exchange regime remain robust.
This government has a plan. It is working its plan. And despite all the challenges, the viability of the Bahamian dollar and the exchange regime remains robust. Although the situation is fluid, we are confident that we have enough reserves to take us through this difficult time until we fully reopen the tourism sector.”
The East Grand Bahama MP also said the government has increased its National Food Distribution Task Force allocation from $1 million per week to $1.3 million per week.
“Data from the Department of Social Services indicates that to date, approximately $11.9 million has been disbursed through the task force to participating non-governmental organisations, who have been working tirelessly to assist those in need,” he said.
“The government rolled out the Tax Credit and Deferral Employee Retention programme at the Department of Inland Revenue which, in its first phase, allowed businesses with a turnover of $3 million or more to receive a mix of VAT and business licence credits and deferrals for up to three months. In the second phase, which runs until October 2020, the Department of Inland Revenue extended the application to all qualified VAT registrants, which meant that once a company had a turnover of $100,000 or more, it could apply to receive these credits and deferrals. To date, some 80 businesses were approved under this programme and have received some $22.9 million in tax credits and deferrals. This has translated into saving some 9,004 jobs within the domestic economy, as companies are required to spend the amount granted in credits and deferrals on payroll expenses.”
Mr Turnquest said the restrictions implemented to address the COVID-19 crisis caused revenue to come in at 77 percent of the budget projected for that period.
To address fiscal concerns, the government has enforced cuts of 20 percent across all ministries, he said.