The UK Government is “open minded” about extending the furlough scheme, a leading member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet has insisted.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will use a four-nations summit with the Prime Minister on Thursday to push for the job retention scheme to continue beyond its current September expiry date.
Now Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has indicated it could be continued.
Asked about the possibility of this, he said: “We are open minded, yes.”
Speaking ahead of the four-nations summit on tackling Covid, Mr Gove said the initiative, which sees the taxpayer pay cash towards workers’ wages, had been a “huge success” that was only possible “thanks to the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury”.
The UK Government minister insisted higher spending as a response to the coronavirus pandemic would continue, as the country as a whole seeks to “build back better”.
The Scottish Government has voiced concerns about a possible return to austerity from the Conservatives at Westminster, but Mr Gove told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “We’ll be spending more.
“We’ll be spending more on the NHS, we will be spending more on education, we will be spending more on criminal justice, because in all of these areas it is absolutely vital that we build back better.
“Extra funding for everyone will continue, and it is important we all learn from each other about how that money should be spent.”
His comments come ahead of a virtual coronavirus recovery summit involved Mr Johnson and the leaders of the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
The rearranged meeting was due to take place last week but was postponed after the first ministers of Wales and Scotland pulled out because they wanted it to be a “meaningful discussion with substantive outcomes”.
Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford subsequently wrote to the Prime Minister asking for more substance and clarity about the summit.
Ahead of the summit, the Scottish First Minister has called on the UK Government to extend furlough again – and ensure pre-existing inequalities are not further exacerbated by the crisis.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We have done everything we can with the limited powers we have to tackle inequality and mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on people’s livelihoods, but we cannot allow that to be eroded as we enter the next phase of living with the virus.
“A return to the pre-pandemic austerity would be disastrous for jobs, for public services and for people and families across Scotland.
“As the UK Government hold the key financial levers to help us recover from this, I will be calling on it to commit to maintain public spending during the period of recovery, and to extend the furlough scheme for as long as it is needed to protect businesses and people who have been required to stop working to protect others, and I will be emphasising that it is managed sensitively in a way that supports longer-term recovery.
“I’ve been given assurances that this will be a meaningful discussion, and it must be.
“Working to recover from Covid cannot be a PR exercise – it must be a collaborative process that properly respects the devolution settlement.
“The Scottish Government requires certainty over funding.
“Without it, people across Scotland who have had to endure so much these past 14 months would lack the reassurance that their jobs are protected, and their public services will continue to be funded to an appropriate level, whatever the virus has in store – that is the bare minimum of our expectations.
“For this summit to be in any way productive, all UK nations must work collaboratively.
“As part of that, the UK Government needs to ensure meaningful engagement with the devolved administrations on the negotiation and governance of trade deals, and to respect the devolved Parliaments by not diverting money to be spent by UK ministers.”
Mr Johnson called for the meeting in the wake of the Welsh and Scottish parliamentary elections last month as he called for a united approach “to overcome the significant challenges of the Covid recovery”.
The virtual summit is due to be attended by the four nations’ first ministers and deputy first ministers as well as Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Mr Gove and the UK Government’s secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Gove said: “I am delighted that the leaders of the devolved administrations all responded positively to the Prime Minister’s invitation to join this important meeting on Covid recovery.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked together to stop the spread of the virus and to roll out life-saving vaccines.
“Our joint success has shown the world what we can achieve as a United Kingdom.
“We must take the same approach to the difficult challenge of rebuilding our economy and public services from the damaging impact of Covid-19.
“It will not be a quick or easy job, but we will all do better if we face the challenge together.”