Changes to the Government’s furlough scheme could be “incredibly difficult” for some companies, Northern Ireland’s economy minister warned.

Around 200,000 people have taken part in an unprecedented official initiative to save jobs during the lockdown.

Employers are set to pay 20% of salaries by October, the Chancellor said.

Stormont minister Diane Dodds said: “This would be incredibly difficult for some employers, particularly those in hospitality and retail sectors which have been closed for three months.

“It is uncertain whether they will get back to full operations for a number of months yet to come.

“I have been urging the Chancellor to consider very wisely what he is going to do.”

The Government has been paying 80% of salaries up to a cap.

NI retail consortium director Aodhan Connolly (right) said official support had helped retailers remain viable (NIRC/PA)

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the tapering of the Job Retention Scheme was “premature”.

“The economic priority during this public health crisis is to protect jobs and the effort that has gone into this to date has been commendable,” he said.

“The economic recovery is still in its infancy and it will be some time before businesses are back to their pre-pandemic trading level.

“While I welcome the extension of the self-employment scheme the tapering of the job retention scheme from August is premature. I am concerned it could lead to redundancies, particularly in the hardest hit industries such as hospitality, retail and leisure.

“I will be raising these issues with Treasury and stressing the need to protect jobs and livelihoods.”

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) represents larger businesses.

Director Aodhan Connolly said official support had helped retailers remain viable.

He said: “A tapered end to the furlough scheme means that there will not be another huge shock to an industry which has suffered so much over recent weeks.

“The ability to furlough part time from July is welcome and has been a central ask of the NIRC.

“However, employers being asked to top up wages when they haven’t been able to trade is yet another pressure on retailers of all sizes and an impetus to reopening.

“Retailers have been working hard for weeks to prepare to reopen safely for staff and shoppers, and the NI Retail Consortium has published guidance with USDAW the union to do exactly that.

“The Northern Ireland Executive now need to let us play our part in restarting the Northern Ireland economy.”

Ann McGregor, chief executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the Chancellor has struck a balance that will help many firms bring furloughed staff back to work flexibly over the coming months.

She said: “The gradual reduction in furlough contributions from the UK Government will give businesses additional time to redevelop revenue.

“The decision to give businesses maximum flexibility to bring people back part-time means that individual firms can decide the hours and shift patterns their employees will work on their return which is helpful.”