Rishi Sunak indicates furlough scheme could remain beyond April

Rajeev Syal
·6-min read

Rishi Sunak has indicated that emergency support measures such as the furlough scheme will be extended beyond the end of April in the budget on Wednesday.

In an interview on Sunday, the chancellor also ruled out speeding up the easing of lockdown even if the data improved and defended his “eat out to help out” scheme.

The number of furloughed workers in the UK rose by 700,000 to 4.7 million in January, during the third Covid lockdown, according to official figures. The scheme pays up to 80% of salaries to those who cannot work because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Asked by Sophy Ridge on Sky News if there would be an extension of the furlough scheme, Sunak said he would “do whatever it took” to support workers.

“I said at the beginning of this crisis that I would do whatever it took to protect people, families and businesses through this crisis and I remain completely committed to that. The PM in the roadmap set out a path for us to recover and reopen and I want to support people and businesses along that path.

“I’m not going to comment on specific policies but I want to make sure people realise that we are going to be there to support them and if you look at our track record we went big, we went early and there’s more to come next week,” he said.

(March 8, 2021)  Step 1, part 1

All pupils and college students return fully. People can meet one other person outside, not just for exercise. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor. The “stay at home” order will otherwise stay in place.

(March 29, 2021)  Step 1, part 2

Outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults will be allowed. The official stay at home order will end, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

(April 12, 2021)  Step 2

The official outline plan states that the next steps will rely on data, and the dates given mean "no earlier than". In step two, there will be a reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries and museums. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

(May 17, 2021)  Step 3

Again with the caveat "no earlier than 17 May", depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

(June 21, 2021)  Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

In the interview, Sunak ruled out speeding up the easing of lockdown even if data showed an improvement in the situation.

“What we want is a cautious but irreversible approach. That’s why we’ve taken the approach that we have and those will be the earliest dates that we think we can do the various things we’ve laid out. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure that it is hopefully irreversible, that’s what we want to see.”

“What businesses don’t want is a stop-start approach to this, we want to know that it’s a one-way road and that’s why it’s cautious. We’ve given the earliest of dates to give a sense of timing and a sense of direction and then obviously we might have to adjust those if things are not going exactly as we would like, but look the early signs are promising.”

He also defended the “eat out to help out” scheme from claims that it helped increase coronavirus infection rates amid reports that it could be reintroduced.

“Areas where ‘eat out to help out’ was used the most, for example in the south-west, were the slowest to see any rise and in fact had very low infection rates. And almost all other major countries have had rises over the autumn and winter and they didn’t have ‘eat out to help out’ so I think it’s a bit odd to ascribe causality in that way,” he said.

The Treasury counts the scheme, which cost £522m, as a success, with more than 100m meals claimed in August 2020.

Amid reports that he will announce a “stealth tax” on income on Wednesday, Sunak did not deny that he plans to increase taxes soon before slashing them in a pre-election budget.

Asked as reported last month if he told Conservative MPs that he would seek to raise taxes now and then cut them before the election, he told Ridge: “I would like to be able to keep taxes low for people in general, I’m a Conservative and I believe in that.

“But I want to deliver our promises that we made to the British people that we would be responsible with their money, that we would look after the nation’s finances and we would deliver strong public services.

“I think in the short-term what we need to do is protect the economy and keep supporting the economy through the roadmap, and over time what we need to do is make sure our public finances are sustainable.

“That isn’t going to happen overnight, that’s going to be work that takes time given the scale of the shock that we’ve experienced but if you’re asking do I want to deliver low taxes for people, of course I do.”