Coronavirus: Chancellor to set out future of job retention scheme

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak is to reveal the future of the government’s job retention scheme later, amid growing calls to extend it.

Currently, more than six million people are having 80% of their wages paid by the government while they are temporarily on leave from their jobs.

Mr Sunak has previously warned the scheme, due to end in June, was not “sustainable” at its current rate.

It comes as the government tries to get more people to return to work.

On Monday night, it published guidance for making workplaces “Covid secure”, including requiring employers to carry out risk assessments before they can reopen.

‘No cliff edge’

Nearly a quarter of the UK’s workforce has been furloughed, with 80% of employee’s wages – up to £2,500 a month – being paid by the government.

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the initiative as “one of the most remarkable features of the government’s response” and “unlike anything seen internationally”.

“Six-and-a-half million people currently are being supported. It is absolutely right that we should do it.”

He added he did not want to steal his chancellor’s thunder but said Mr Sunak would update MPs on Tuesday.

Last week, Mr Sunak promised there would be no “cliff edge” cut-off.

Torsten Bell, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation think tank and an early advocate of the scheme, warned against it being removed too quickly.

“Moving too quickly could spark a huge second surge in job losses at a time when unemployment already looks set to be at the highest level for a quarter of a century,” he said.

“This policy has made a huge difference in this crisis. It now needs careful and gradual change to ensure the benefits it has provided are secured rather than squandered.”

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Media caption“Employers will not be allowed to get away with forcing people to work in conditions that are not Covid-secure”

This latest development to the scheme comes as the government continues to defend its return to work message, issued this week.

Both trade unions and Labour criticised Mr Johnson for issuing his return-to-work call in his Sunday night TV broadcast without explaining how it could be safely achieved.

On Monday, Mr Johnson used the daily Downing Street briefing to clarify the new rules, saying employers would need to prove they met a new safety standard, dubbed “Covid secure”.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy released new guidance for UK employers on how to implement social distancing measures, with eight separate documents published for sectors which can now reopen.

Measures could include staggered start times, one-way systems, screens between workers and increased cleaning.

Ministers are also due to provide further information on how people can travel safely on public transport as the coronavirus lockdown begins to ease.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady cautiously welcomed the new workplace guidance, saying it was a “step in the right direction”.

But the union said ministers had to gets to grips with the provision of personal protective equipment as more workers needed it.

“After the confusion of the last few days, working people will only feel confident if government and employers act now to make safer working a reality in every workplace,” she said.

‘Very serious risk’

However, a former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, cast doubt on the safety of the plans, saying it would be “foolhardy” for people to go back to work too soon.

He said the UK should first focus on developing effective contact tracing and improving public health capacity before easing the lockdown.

“I think until that is in place I would only suggest that we run the very serious risk of running back into where we just came out of six weeks ago, and having to put us back into lockdown is going to extend the timescale of the epidemic for a very much longer time.

“I think we should be considerably more cautious in undoing the lockdown.”

Figures released on Monday showed a further 210 people have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus, taking the total number of deaths recorded to 32,065.

After eight days of missing its goal of 100,000 tests a day, on Monday the government counted 100,490 tests on 10 May.

Also on Monday, the government published new guidance for the public, as well as a lengthy strategy document, on the next steps in its coronavirus response in England.

The information includes new advice for people in England to wear face coverings on public transport and in some shops.

It also set out how, from Wednesday, people in England will be allowed to meet one other person from outside their household as long as they stay outdoors and stay 2m apart.

However, leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said “stay at home” messages remained in place there – prompting Mr Johnson to defended the differing approaches between the UK nations.

The 60-page document also said:

  • People in England can drive to any outdoor open space in the country – but not to other UK nations whose rules should be respected
  • Healthy people aged 70 and over should take particular care to minimise contact with others – even if they have not been advised to shield by the NHS
  • Clothes should be washed regularly if people work with others outside of their household
  • Doors and windows should be left open in places where people from different households interact
  • A “rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions” is needed to deal with Covid-19

In other developments:

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