More than 400,000 requests for applications have been made to Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme on the first day.
The £145 million (€169 million) High Street Stimulus Scheme will see all those aged over 18 eligible for a £100 (€117) pre-paid card to spend, aimed at supporting local businesses which have been devastated by Covid.
Demand for the scheme was so high that the online application portal was hit by problems shortly after it opened on Monday morning, with a number of people taking to social media to complain that were experiencing difficulties in applying for the card on the NI Direct site.
Some said the site had crashed, while others had not immediately received a verification email after entering their details.
Stormont’s Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said that the problems were quickly resolved.
He told the BBC: “So far today there have been 441,112 requests for applications on the website, so I think people can understand the interest that there is in this scheme and many people have been online trying to apply.
“I am pleased that 161,000 application links have been issued to those that applied.
“That means that more than one in 10 in Northern Ireland that are eligible will now have received their link, and of those almost 80,000 applications have been completed.
“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.”
Mr Lyons added: “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.”
Asked about early problems with the website, the minister said: “It was sorted out very quickly, we had more than 400,000 attempts to apply for the card today.”
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 25th, with the first cards arriving in the post on the week beginning October 4th.
The cards will be valid until November 30th.
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.”
Shoppers in Belfast were excited about the prospect of applying for the £100 pre-paid card.
Aisling McGirr, who was with friend Aine McCooey, said: “We haven’t applied for it yet.
“We were supposed to do it this morning but the website was down.
“That’s what I’ll be doing as soon as I get home.
“I will be definitely spending it in clothes.
“Be sensible and get stuff for university like notebooks and pens.
“We will maybe treat ourselves to a night out.”
Meanwhile, as applications began flooding in, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford told 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.