Labour’s business spokesperson has blasted the “inherent sexism” in the government’s lifting of lockdown, which has seen pubs and barbers allowed to open their doors before beauty salons and nail bars.
Lucy Powell warned that Britain’s high streets could become “ghost towns” unless the government steps up financial assistance for services like the beauty industry which are most badly affected by social distancing measures.
And she said that “snobbishness” may play a part in ministers overlooking services used mainly by women and young people while displaying “macho bravado” about encouraging drinkers to return to pubs.
Speaking to The Independent, Ms Powell said chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £1,000 bonus for keeping on furloughed staff – announced on Wednesday – was not enough to stave off redundancies, and urged him to extend his job retention scheme to Christmas at least for sectors like hospitality which are least able to make a swift return to normal levels of activity.
Despite announcements this week that beauty salons, nail bars and tattooists in England can reopen from 13 July, they will be subject to restrictions – like a ban on doing work on clients’ faces – which might make them unviable. And for other employers, like theatres and conference organisers, there is still “no end in sight” despite Mr Sunak beginning to wind down furlough support from next month, said Ms Powell.
She said the UK should be following the lead of countries like France and Germany where financial support has been guaranteed for as long as two years for businesses rendered unviable by the need for customers to be kept apart from one another.
“Unless we support these sectors more through the necessary social distancing measures, then we’re going to see a real tsunami of job losses and, especially in a lot of our city centres, we’re going to see ghost towns remaining.”
Hospitality trade bodies have already warned that at least half a million jobs are at risk, while retailers fear that Covid-19 will spark a “massive acceleration” of the social changes which have seen consumers move away from bricks-and-mortar shops in the high streets and malls and onto online purchasing, said Ms Powell.
“There are a million jobs in the sectors that are only just going to be able to reopen at the end of this month, she added.
“And some still can’t reopen – whether that’s in theatres; the creative industry; the events and wedding industry; conference events; which are a massive part of the UK economy and a big employer.
“There’s no end in sight for these sectors. Some are predicting, you know, huge levels of unemployment and we’re not seeing any abating yet of all of those warning signs in terms of redundancy announcements. Enough hasn’t been done this week to abate that.”
Ms Powell said employers in these sectors now face a series of “cliff edges” when they will have to decide whether to keep on staff, as they have to start paying employer national insurance and pension contributions in August, then 10 per cent of wages in September and 20 per cent in October before the scheme – under which the state has paid up to £2,500 a month for 9 million employees – ends altogether on 1 November.
She urged Mr Sunak to ditch the government’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to ending the job retention scheme and recognise that continuing government restrictions will make it impossible for some employers to keep staff on.
“I think government could be more creative about that, encouraging short time and part-time working,” she said.
“We’ve identified £1.7bn of cash grants that haven’t yet been paid out. That should be rapidly redistributed to the areas most acutely affected like hospitality and tourism, with local authorities being given much greater flexibility to really target that at businesses in their areas, many of which were not eligible for support this time round.
“These are things we think can be done to support these businesses with their immediate cashflow needs to get them through these next two or three critical months before we start to see some really big layoffs.”
Ms Powell said the jobs involved – many of which are held by young, female and ethnic minority workers – were at risk only because of restrictions imposed, for sound public health reasons, by the government.
“The government has a moral obligation here, which needs to continue through what is a longer period of social distancing and public health measures than was anticipated at the beginning,” she said.
“We all know the consequences of not doing it, which is mass unemployment and mass redundancies in parts of the country that can ill afford it.
“Young women are six times more likely to be in a job at risk arising out of this as a man over the age of 25. A black or ethnic minority worker is twice as likely to be in a job at risk.
“So we are facing mass unemployment for young people, young women, Bame communities in parts of the country – rural, coastal north Wales, wherever – where it will take years for these for these jobs to re-emerge.
“That cost is a much greater cost to the public finances and to the government than putting in place more urgent action today to see those jobs survive for the few months that is necessary.”
Ms Powell said that the government’s approach to lifting lockdown reflected a failure to understand the crucial role of certain sectors to female and youth employment.
“Why is it you can get your beard trimmed but you can’t get your eyebrows done?” she asked.
“It feels to me like there is some inherent sexism in that, not understanding how it actually works, how hygienic it is.
“There’s maybe a bit of snobbishness about about some of these sectors that, while there’s a macho bravado about the importance of the pub. I’m very passionate about pubs as well but I’m equally passionate about the importance of beauty salons. They’re the cornerstone of many of our high streets these days and they employ a lot of young women, and a lot of people from minority backgrounds and I don’t think their voice has been heard as loudly at the top of government as some other sectors.”