Britain on Thursday launched a coronavirus winter battle plan to protect jobs and boost the fragile economy, after surging infections sparked fresh nationwide measures to slow the spread.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak unveiled his new jobs protection scheme that will support wages of staff keeping at least one-third of their usual working hours.
The plan, starting in November, does not however go as far as the furlough scheme ending next month that has paid out billions of pounds to support wages of some ten million workers.
“The next phase of our planned economic response” would “protect jobs and the economy over the winter period,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Sunak told parliament.
He decided to also prolong tax cuts for the hospitality and tourism sectors, while extending an income-support initiative for the self-employed.
– ‘Cannot save every business’ –
“As I’ve said throughout this crisis, I cannot save every business,” Sunak said as he announced the watered-down jobs scheme.
“I cannot save every job. No chancellor could.”
Under the new scheme, the government and employers will together pay the salaries of workers kept in roles on reduced hours.
To keep the UK economy alive and people in jobs during the pandemic, the government’s furlough scheme has paid the bulk of wages earned by staff in full-time roles across the private sector.
Despite the new support, analysts warn that Britain still faces the possibility of surging unemployment as many businesses simply cannot afford to keep staff, even on reduced hours.
“These measures should help ease the pressure currently being felt by businesses and workers up and down the country,” noted analyst Tom Selby at broker AJ Bell.
“However, whether it is enough to prevent a surge in unemployment as we head into winter remains to be seen.”
Sunak’s update comes on the day Britons began facing new restrictive measures — including early closing times for pubs and restaurants.
Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week called on Britons to work from home as the country faces a spike in virus cases, hurting city-centre services.
Johnson’s call comes as businesses were just starting to get back on their feet after a three-month nationwide lockdown earlier this year.
– ‘Fact of life’ –
“It is now clear, as the prime minister and his science advisers have said, that for at least the next six months the virus and restrictions are going to be a fact of our lives,” Sunak added Thursday.
“The resurgence of the virus and the measures we need to take in response pose a threat to this fragile economic recovery,” he added.
British gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by a fifth in the second quarter, more than any European neighbour, after the March 23 lockdown plunged the country into its deepest recession on record.
While retailers, hospitality and travel groups have been at the forefront of slashing tens of thousands of jobs during the pandemic and despite furlough support, supermarkets have created many new ones to meet a surge in online food demand.
Britain on Wednesday meanwhile recorded 6,178 new virus cases — the highest daily increase since May 1.
The government’s top medical advisers had warned that the country could see up to 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October, and a month later exceed 200 deaths every day if nothing was done.
Almost 42,000 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Britain, the worst death toll in Europe.