March 26, 2020 / 2:46 PM / 2 days ago

UK digital banks unable to provide state funds to coronavirus-hit firms

LONDON (Reuters) - Several of Britain’s digital banks are still waiting to hear if they can offer government-backed loans to struggling small businesses damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, days after a multi-billion pound rescue scheme was launched.

Neo-banks including OakNorth, Tide and Starling - which have hundreds of thousands of business customers between them - have applied to take part in the so-called Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), but have not heard when they will be able to access the funds to help customers in need.

The scheme was first unveiled by Finance Minister Rishi Sunak last week as part of a 330 billion pound ($397 billion)support package for firms hit by a sudden surge in costs from staff falling ill or self-isolating, and a simultaneous collapse in revenues triggered by the country’s lockdown.

The government-backed British Business Bank (BBB) launched CBILS on Monday by repurposing an existing funding scheme set up during the global financial crisis in early 2009 and backed by more than 40 accredited lenders, including the bulk of Britain’s traditional high street banks.

But digital banks who were not signed up to the earlier scheme have so far been unable to offer the relief funding to their customers, and remain subject to an accreditation process before they can participate.

“It’s important new lenders are on-boarded quickly to deal with the demand. Tide is still yet to receive a response to our registration of interest,” Chief Executive Oliver Prill said.

“There is a concern that the BBB is very stretched and so we urgently call on the government to ensure that it is adequately resourced and that management is setting the right priorities.”

The CBILS was initially expected to be worth 1.2 billion pounds but the government has since said it will be demand-led.

OakNorth Bank, which was launched in 2015 and counts restaurant chains Leon and Brasserie Blanc and leisure groups Z Hotels and Nine Group Hotels among its clients, said the government needed to act fast to prevent small firms from failing.

“Obviously we have a public health crisis at the moment, but what is really important is that we don’t turn that public health crisis into a prolonged economic crisis by not getting funds to small businesses as quickly as possible,” Nick Lee, head of regulatory affairs at OakNorth, told Reuters.

A spokesman for the BBB declined to comment on how many applications it had received from unaccredited lenders and how long they would take to process.

“The number one priority was to get it (CBILS) up and running. Now that we have done that, our priority is to get more lenders signed up. We have allocated extra resources to processing applications,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Starling, founded in 2014, said: “We understand why they have set the scheme up in this way. The important thing is getting money into the hands of businesses as soon as they can.”

Reporting by Sinead Cruise and Iain Withers; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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