Extending support for all

Tough times: A pedestrian walks past a shuttered souvenir shop on Oxford Street in central London. Retail sales in Britain tumbled and government borrowing soared in January after the country re-entered lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic. — AFP

LONDON: The UK’s finance minister Rishi Sunak is poised to spend billions of pounds more in state support for the economy over the next four months, as an extended lockdown threatens businesses’ survival.

The chancellor of the exchequer will set out the details in his March 3 budget after Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a timeline for reopening the UK economy that keeps some businesses closed until at least June 21.

Johnson’s four-step road map for lifting the lockdown will influence how fast Treasury subsidies are withdrawn, according to people familiar with the matter. Key aid programmess are currently due to end as early as next month but Sunak will extend assistance so that companies and individuals do not face a cliff-edge while restrictions are still in place, they said.

“People may be concerned about what these changes mean for the various support packages for livelihoods, for people and for the economy, ” Johnson told members of Parliament Monday. “We will not pull the rug out. For the duration of the pandemic, the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK”

Sunak faces a daunting task to put the economy on a path to recovery after suffering its deepest slump in three centuries last year.

The budget deficit is already setting peacetime records after the chancellor committed to spending £300bil (US$422bil) to help the health service and businesses cope with the crisis, a sum that’s set to increase next week.

On Monday, Johnson detailed his four-step plan gradually to lift restrictions that have damaged the economy and kept most children away from school since the start of the year. While schools will reopen in two weeks, people will be asked to work from home where possible until at least June 21.

A snap poll of 3,900 adults in England by YouGov found the largest proportion – 46% – think the government has got the balance right on lifting the lockdown, whereas 26% think ministers are moving too fast and 16% too slowly.

Sunak’s package of financial support will broadly track the exit strategy, while taking into account the fact that business will not immediately return to normal levels even when shops and pubs are allowed to reopen, according to the people, who spoke anonymously about unannounced plans.

That suggests assistance will last beyond the tentative date of June 21 set by Johnson to reopen the last sectors of the economy.

The premier’s road map means businesses such as nightclubs will be shut until at least June 21, while theaters, concert halls and sporting venues will have limits on the crowds they can admit until then, rendering many of them unprofitable.

Pubs and restaurants won’t be able to re-open until at least April 12, and then for outdoor service only. By the time indoor service is allowed in mid-May, many businesses will have been closed for nearly 200 days “with just a couple of weeks of heavily restricted trading in December, ” said UKHospitality chief executive officer Kate Nicholl.

“A major package of financial support is imperative, ” Nicholl said. “This delay in reopening will make the job of survival all the more difficult for businesses only just clinging onto existence.”

Government support policies currently due to expire by the end of April include Sunak’s benchmark programme that pays furloughed workers up to 80% of their wages, a business rates holiday, and reduced sales tax for hospitality and tourism. The chancellor faces calls to extend all of them, both from business groups and politicians, including from two predecessors in his own Conservative party.

“The chancellor must deliver on the prime minister’s ‘whatever it takes’ pledge, ” said Federation of Small Businesses National Chairman Mike Cherry. “On one side of the coin we have continued restrictions – on the other, we need corresponding business support.”

Members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party also called for the economy to be reopened more quickly, especially when the 32 million people most vulnerable to Covid-19 are due to have been vaccinated by mid-April. — Bloomberg

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