Shoppers have been urged not to “rush at once” to apply for Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme, after the website experienced difficulties on the first morning.
The £145 million High Street Stimulus Scheme 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 on Monday, a number of people used 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.
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.
Commenting on the issues with the voucher scheme portal, a spokesman for the Department for the Economy said: “The website is currently experiencing some challenges associated with high demand.
“We are working quickly to fix this, but we always knew demand for the Spend Local card would be extremely high which is why we are giving people four weeks to apply.
“Please be patient, there is plenty of time for everyone to apply, receive and use their card.”
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said the application portal would be open until October 25, so there was no need for everyone to register on the first morning.
He told the BBC: “Today is another step on the road to economic recovery and building a healthy economy, which is a key objective for me in this department and this scheme is a big part of that.
“I would encourage people to remember that it is open until October 25 so not everybody has to rush at once, there is a card available for everyone that is eligible and so I would encourage people to apply for that over the coming weeks and, of course, to spend it local in those businesses that have been most affected during the period of restrictions.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before, 1.5m people are eligible to apply for the card at this time and we always had expected there would be huge demand, it is a popular scheme for both individuals and businesses.
“I don’t think everyone will apply today. I think people will realise they have until October 25, but during those periods where there is an awful lot of demand there is that safeguard in place so that the website is able to continue to operate.”
— RetailNI (@retail_ni) September 27, 2021
He added: “I want to help those businesses in particular that were affected by the restrictions and the lockdowns that were in place. That means local, this is spend local and it is spending in retailers and hospitality, but also in entertainment and leisure as well.”
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.
Retail NI has urged shoppers to consider making their application later in the week to reduce pressure on the online portal.
The group’s chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “If people can wait a few days before making their application, hopefully we can avoid any delays or problems with a rush on the online portal and they will receive their voucher on a timely basis.
“With a scheme of this ambition and size we are bound to experience some problems and would urge shoppers to be patient.”