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CHANCELLOR Rishi Sunak unveiled an unprecedented emergency package on workers’ jobs and wages today during the coronavirus outbreak following talks with trade unions.
At the daily Covid-19 press conference in Downing Street hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Mr Sunak said that the government will pick up “most of” the wages of workers who would otherwise face losing their jobs.
But the announcement focused mainly on PAYE employees, with critics demanding more protections for freelancers, the self-employed and precarious workers.
A coronavirus job-retention scheme will be set up, the Chancellor said, where any employer in Britain will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover 80 per cent of wages of workers it can’t afford to pay — up to £2,500 a month.
He also announced an extra £7 billion boost to benefit allowances, such as an increase to universal credit (UC) by £1,000 for the year.
For those who are self-employed, Mr Sunak suspended the minimum spending floor for those affected by the virus, meaning that they can access UC at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay for employees.
Mr Sunak’s £350 billion support package announced earlier in the week was focused on businesses, with little help for staff facing the prospect of being laid off and unable to pay the bills.
Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady said that the latest announcement was “a breakthrough” and that she was “glad” that the Chancellor had worked with unions in the process.
She said: “Large-scale wage subsidies are the best way to boost household finances and keep businesses running. And they’ll help our economy bounce back after this crisis.
“Employers across the economy can now be confident that they will be able to pay their wage bills. They must urgently reassure their staff that their jobs and livelihoods are safe.”
But Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said that the announcement was “far from the ‘whatever it takes’ approach” Mr Sunak had promised.”
Mr Clancy said the plan “still contains gaping holes which could sink many family finances and ultimately the economy.”
“This is too late for many of our members from flight engineers to cinema staff who have already been let go,” he said, adding that the Chancellor must make it clear that workers should be rehired with their incomes secured by government for the duration of the crisis.
“They should not pay the price of the government dragging its feet,” he warned.
“There is still no real protection for freelance, self-employed and contract workers who seem not to be covered by the income protection scheme and are being left to struggle through the inadequate benefits system.”
And Bectu leader Philippa Childs said that the support package “will come as a devastating blow” to freelance and self-employed workers.
“The Chancellor simply doesn’t understand the hardship these workers are in. Telling them to simply claim UC while other workers have their incomes protected is cruel and unfair,” she said.
And PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka warned that implementing the “ambitious” plans would require “a massive increase in staff levels at the Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC.”
Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said that the retention scheme was “moving in the right direction” but pointed out that no specific obligation was made for employers to keep staff on.
She also criticised the rise in benefits to match statutory sick pay, which she said “wasn’t good enough anyway.”
The new measures follow Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s admission on Thursday that he could not live on £92.25 per week under statutory sick pay.
Mr Hancock suggested on BBC’s Question Time that tougher measures could have to be brought in if people do not follow the government’s advice.
The PM also told pubs, restaurants and cafes, among other venues, to close their doors last night, but said that they can continue to provide takeaways.
Mr Johnson repeated that he expects the tide to be turned in the fight against the virus within 12 weeks and urged the public to follow social-distancing advice and to self-isolate if they have any symptoms.
But experts have warned that social isolation measures will need to be in place for most of a year at least in order to control the spread of the pandemic.
Scientists also advised ministers that while the severity of measures could alternate during the period the “stricter” measures would need to be enforced for at least half of the year.
The PM also pledged to increase testing for the virus to up to 250,000 a day which, combined with collective action and scientific progress, he claimed would save “many, many thousands of lives.”
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) called for priority testing for fire and rescue service personnel after some brigades reported losing hundreds of staff to self-isolation.
In a letter to ministers, the FBU has said that without testing, firefighters and control staff could be self-isolating unnecessarily when they could be on hand to protect the public.
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