The U.K. government is escalating its response to the country’s coronavirus outbreak, with lockdown measures finally in place and extensive economic support for retained workers.
Speaking as part of a daily televised press briefing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered all cinemas, theatres, bars, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and gyms to shut down from Friday evening to counter the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced billions of pounds worth of new economic measures under the coronavirus job retention scheme.
The government will pay up to 80% of people’s wages, with a maximum of £2,500 ($2,930) per month, slightly above the national median wage. There is no upper limit to the funds the government is spending on this and payments will be backdated to March 1.
Meanwhile, the previously announced coronavirus business interruption scheme that was interest-free for six months, will now be interest-free for a year. It will be available from March 23.
The next quarter of VAT payments, worth £30 billion ($35 billion), is now deferred to the end of June.
Of most importance to freelancers, the Universal Credit Allowance will be increased by £1,000 ($1,157) a year, which amounts to around £94 [$108] a week for a single person over 25, while the self-employed will get full Universal Credit at a rate that is equivalent to statutory sick pay. A further £1 billion ($1.2 billion) will also be set aside to cover 30% of house rental costs
Self-assessment tax has been deferred to January 2021. The chancellor also announced support for the self-employed. Total new welfare measures are worth £7 billion ($8.1 billion)
“These are unprecedented measures for unprecedented times,” said Sunak of the coronavirus outbreak, which has so far claimed 167 lives in the U.K. amid 3,269 confirmed coronavirus cases so far.
The U.K. government’s financial outlay during the crisis has been massive so far. They include access to £330 billion in loans ($387.5 billion) and $23.4 billion in grants that were announced earlier this week, in addition to $14 billion for coronavirus support in the budget earlier this month.
Up until Friday’s announcement, unions and organizations were calling on the government for further measures to protect the freelance and self-employed workforce, which props up the local film and TV industry.
However, the measures revealed today still don’t go far enough to cover freelancers and the self-employed as these workers are not technically retained, contracted workers who can access the 80% wage support scheme, according to entertainment union Bectu.
In response to the measures unveiled Friday, union boss Philippa Childs says, “The Chancellor’s support package for workers will come as a devastating blow to freelance and self-employed workers who needed much more support than they are being given.
“It is clear the Chancellor simply doesn’t understand the hardship these workers are in — telling them to simply claim universal credit while other workers have their incomes protected is cruel and unfair.”
Childs says Bectu is pleased with the delay in the self-assessment tax deadline, a major campaign issue for the union, “but it really is the least he could have done.”
“He must urgently revise his income support plan to include these workers and not force them onto the welfare system and we will be making urgent representations to government to make sure all our members are protected during this crisis,” she says.
Elsewhere, actors union Equity has also spoken out against the measures laid out, with General Secretary Christine Payne noting, “Entertainment workers have been badly let down by the government. The Chancellor claims that ‘any employer’ will be eligible for the job retention scheme — not in our sector.
“Suspension of the Universal Credit Minimum Income Floor and tax deferrals are a drop in the ocean compared to the losses experienced by our members and fall far short of the support available to workers elsewhere in the economy.
“We will fight on to put the case for our members who have provided billions in revenue for the U.K. but are not being protected in their hour of need.”