Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert MP.

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Five billion dollars and counting.

That’s the confirmed amount spent in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.

“We have crossed the $5 billion mark and we intend to provide as much relief as we can. And certainly, in the next budget, there will be an amount for COVID relief, residual COVID relief going forward into 2022,” Imbert said during a virtual media conference yesterday,

About $75 million out of that sum has been spent so far to procure vaccines, Imbert said as he dismissed rumours that the Government had sought loans to buy doses.

“All of the vaccines that we have purchased so far, we have use of general revenues because of the importance of it. You didn’t wait for anything. So we have used general revenues earned by the Ministry of Finance from taxation and wherever to purchase vaccines,” said Imbert, who previously estimated Trinidad and Tobago would spend $120-130 million on vaccines.

“The actual expenditure so far is still the same 70 to 75 million TT dollar range. We have quite a lot of donations as you know … the AstraZeneca from Canada was a donation. You have not yet been called upon by the Africa vaccine Alliance Trust to pay for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, except for the first batch that is on the way,” Imbert said, while stressing he still expected money spent on vaccines to reach his projected estimate.

He also confirmed $150 million has been paid out via the Salary Relief Grant since 2020.

Imbert said $147.8 million had been paid out to 91,393 applicants from 2020.

“We also have a number of cards which we gave to persons who don’t have bank accounts and the number of cards that we have produced so far is 6,367. Of which, over 3,000 already been delivered and another 2,000 out for delivery. So that’s the 2020 situation,” the Finance Minister said.

Since the relief grant was restarted in May 2021, he confirmed about $12 million had been paid out to over 4,000 applicants.

“As of the August 16, 4,070 persons have received salary grants for a total, payout of about $12 million. In terms of applications, we have screened 14,747 applications. The total application submitted was 24,000, we have screened almost 15,000 of those,” he said.

He also confirmed that there were 774 applications in Tobago which are being processed.

Imbert confirmed that the vast majority of applicants had come from the food services and retail sectors.

Restaurants were closed at the end of April, while retails stores were ordered closed a week later amidst a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the country.

The Finance Minister confirmed that retail workers were the most common applicants, with 9,003 applications coming from that sector, while 8,006 from the food/restaurant and service industry applied for relief.

The next most frequent application for the grant came from workers attached to members’ clubs and casinos, with 1,109 applications.

Imbert said hair dressers and barbers were also seeking aid in significant number, as well as sporting facility employees.

The Finance Minister also dannounce changes to the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) government guarantee loan programme, which went largely unused as many applicants failed to meet the required criteria to access the loan.

“The banks recognised that several applicants were having difficulty in moving from the application stage to the disbursement stage of the loan programme. The biggest problem was with the area of statutory requirements. Forty-seven per cent of the persons who were turned down for one of these SMEs loans were unable to provide evidence of up-to-date VAT payments,” said Imbert, who confirmed that adjustments were made so that applicants could provide documents from 2018 in widening the availability.

He also confirmed that the Government would now guarantee 100 per cent of the loan, as opposed to 75 percent guarantee, while also adjusting the minimum threshold required for the loan.

“I’m going to take it back to the year and 2018 so that the applicants will now. They must show that they are up to date with taxes and NIS payments up to 2018 and will be given one year after they get the loan to bring themselves fully up to date,” Imbert said.

“We are also changing the threshold. So that we’re lowering the threshold for access to the facility to $500,000 annual turnover, which isn’t much for a small business, but we thought that that’s the thresholds for Value-Added Tax registration, $500,000.”

Imbert confirmed that the loan, which had previously been meant to cover operational expenses and salary payments, could also now be used for fixed asset and plant and machinery as well.

The minister confirmed that 272 businesses successfully applied for the loans but said in excess of 300 applications were received.