Minister of Finance Colm Imbert

Finance Minister Colm Imbert says Government plans to spend up to $6 billion as part of its COVID-19 relief effort.

He gave the breakdown during yesterday’s COVID-19 news conference as he attempted to clear up what he called “misinformation in the system” on what Government is doing to provide assistance during the pandemic period.

He said Government has so far spent $934 million through its various ministries and agencies. The bulk of the spending came from his ministry.

He explained that funds were spent on salary relief, a credit union agreement, Valued Added Tax (VAT) refunds, bonds, face masks, the Tobago House of Assembly and the Tobago Regional Health Authority.

“We have further provisions for Tobago in due course,” he said.

He added that they have also secured a US$65 million loan to assist the state-owned Caribbean Airlines, which has been severely hit by closed borders worldwide.

“As you would realise, Caribbean Airlines is earning no money at this time,” Imbert said, adding additional support for WASA is also being looked at right now.

He said the much talked about small and medium business sector was also a feature for financial assistance. Imbert said Government is “in the final stages of a loan programme” where it will subsidise the interest and provide some sort of guarantee for those in that bracket and some $300 million has been allocated for this measure.

“It’s for payroll support, it’s to keep people in jobs, it is to allow them to remain in business,” he said.

He said the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services has spent $98.1 million to date on its range of social programmes, which include food cards, cash support cards, school feeding food cards, rental assistance and income assistance.

The ministry leading the COVID-19 fight, the Ministry of Health, has so far utilised $55 million but Imbert said, “if there is an increase in cases, God forbid, then the ministry would have to spend some more money.”

In this regard, he said an additional provision of 250 million would be made available.

“We are giving Health every cent they need.”

The Ministry of Agriculture has also used $1.3 million to ensure fresh produce, “and that figure may actually go up in terms of increasing the amount of fresh produce available.”

Other monies were spent by the Ministry of National Security – $3.7 million, Office of the Prime Minister—10 million, Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government—$13.9 million and the T&T Police Service – $5.3 million.

Imbert knocked what he called unreasonable requests from some quarters in society, for example for the waiving of taxes and water and electricity rates. He said if this was done, “it just means that the treasury will have to put out more.”

However, he is convinced the Government will be able to fund the COVID-19 measures and the overall budget.

“We are satisfied, on proper examination of all that is available, that there is more than adequate financing available to cover both the budget deficit and debt servicing,” Imbert said.

“I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty at all, we’ve been doing our homework for the last month.”

In April of this year, Imbert revised the fiscal deficit due to the hit expected from COVID-19 and the fall in international energy prices.

The deficit was originally estimated at $5.3 billion but is now expected to expand to $15.5 billion.