UK fends off demands to give workers more virus financial support

June 15, 2021
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a media briefing in Downing Street, London, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Jonathan Buckmaster/Pool Photo via AP)

LONDON (AP) — The British government fended off calls Tuesday to provide more financial support to businesses and workers suffering from its decision to delay lifting coronavirus restrictions in England until July 19.

Although many restrictions have been eased in recent weeks, allowing large parts of the UK economy to reopen, a number of businesses, particularly in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, have remained shuttered because it was not financially viable.

After months of planning, those businesses had been preparing to reopen on June 21, the date the government had earmarked for the possible lifting of restrictions on social contact.

But a recent spike in new infections as a result of the more contagious delta variant upended that plan and has fuelled concerns that the restrictions may persist beyond July 19.

Scientists advising the government reckon that the delta variant, which was first found in India, is between 40% to 80% more transmissible than the previous dominant strain in the UK.

The alpha variant first found in Britain was largely behind a winter virus surge that left the country with Europe's highest virus-related death toll at nearly 128,000.

“Now is the time to ease off the accelerator, because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday when announcing the delay.

Following the announcement, unions joined business leaders to urge the Conservative government to compensate those affected by the delay, warning that it may tip many companies over the edge and lead to a sharp rise in unemployment.

Figures Tuesday showed unemployment in the UK falling to 4.7% in April from 4.8% as the economy rebounded and pubs and shops reopened with restrictions.

Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the government should delay asking businesses to contribute to the salary support program it has operated since March 2020 and retain the program for as long as it's needed.

Under the Job Retention Scheme, the government has been paying 80% of the salaries of those unable to work because of the restrictions.

But beginning in July, that support goes down to 70% with firms contributing 10%.

The scheme becomes less generous through the summer before it expires at the end of September.

“We can't afford for more companies to go the wall, taking good jobs with them,” she said.

And the Confederation of British Industry urged the government to hold back on the planned tapering of tax relief for businesses and extend the commercial rent moratorium for the sectors most impacted.

“We must acknowledge the pain felt by businesses in hospitality, leisure and live events,” the CBI's director-general Tony Danker said.

Cabinet Officer minister Michael Gove, a close ally to Johnson, appeared to indicate that no more financial help will be forthcoming, saying the support programs were created knowing that there could be delays out of lockdown.

But he said he was “pretty confident” there wouldn't be another delay in lifting restrictions.

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