Government will be giving churches and religious bodies $30 million over the next three months to distribute to the poor and needy – and some salary relief grants may be out by tomorrow, Finance Minister Colm Imbert announced that in Parliament yesterday.

Detailing further steps in Government’s provision of measures to assist sectors amid the COVID-19 crisis, Imbert said it was acknowledged that containment measures regarding the virus would have a most severe economic fallout on some of T&T’s major employment-creating sectors from tourism and construction to agriculture.

“We’ve responded quickly with a broad set of policy measures aimed at providing social protection, assisting the poor and vulnerable, protecting businesses, jobs and incomes, maintaining financial resilience and sustaining economic activity,” Imbert said.

He said Government yesterday decided to expand the reach of its food support programmes by enlisting the assistance of churches and religious bodies.

“Grants totalling $10 million per month for three months, May, June and July, will be given to religious bodies in proportion to the size of their congregations for them to distribute food to the poor and needy in accordance with their existing procedures and programmes. This will cost $30 million,” Imbert said.

“A further $10 million per month for food support will be given to the Ministry of Rural Development for distribution within the 14 municipal regions in Trinidad, for the months of May, June and July, at a cost of a further $30 million.”

The emphasis in food support programmes will be placed on fresh produce and traditional processed foods.

He also said his ministry is well advanced with arrangements for the payment of Salary Relief Grants for persons registered for National Insurance and whose employment had been terminated or suspended without pay as a result of the Public Health Regulations. Grants are for as much as $1,500 monthly for up to three months.

“As of March 24, some 30,300 applications for Salary Relief Grants were received, comprising 11,452 hand-delivered applications from TTPost locations and 18,758 applications received online. Earlier estimates of online applications given to us, which were based on the assumed byte size of a typical application, proved to be inaccurate,” he said.

“For those who aren’t Internet savvy, the statistics now justify the use of police stations for the physical collection of forms and TTPost offices for the drop-off of completed applications. Work is being done on the first batch of 1,000 salary relief grants.”

He added, “If all goes according to plan, these grants will be wired to recipients (Tuesday) and arrive in their bank accounts by (tomorrow). Thereafter, we expect to be able to increase our capacity to be able to process/deliver up to 10,000 new grants weekly.”

Grants are eventually expected to reach as many as 100,000 persons at a cost of $400 million.

Yesterday, Government also initiated the process for a wire transfer of funds in the amount of $2,000 to T&T students at the UWI campuses in Jamaica and Barbados who aren’t on national scholarships. Other students at regional universities, such as in Cuba, will also be assisted in due course.

Imbert also signed an agreement yesterday with bodies representing the credit union sector to provide them with $100 million in funds for loans up to $5,000 for members.

“We’re also in the final stages of preparing a Government-guaranteed soft loan programme for small/medium-sized enterprises, to be administered through commercial banks.”

He said between VAT refunds and income tax refunds, Government will have paid out $700 million in cash in a two-month period, all designed to inject money into the economy.

“Accelerated payment of Corporation Tax refunds is also being seriously considered,” he said.

But Imbert noted that where T&T’s labour force is estimated at 620,000 persons, only 420,000 persons are registered for national insurance in T&T.

“This means 200,000 persons or 32 per cent of our labour force are outside of the formal system. This is a serious matter which must be addressed when life gets back to normal. It’s not fair to those persons who faithfully pay their taxes and NIS contributions for so many unregistered workers to be outside of the system.”