Further action needed even as furlough extended

By Patricia Gibson, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran

Two months have now passed since the lockdown began and all our lives have been impacted by measures introduced to minimise the spread of the coronavirus and protect our vital NHS services.

For almost everyone, this has caused huge disruption to our lives. We have been unable to see friends and loved ones, we need to queue to get into the supermarket, and trips and outings have been restricted. While some measures have been lifted in England, the rest of the UK remains in lockdown.

Whilst many of us are working from home, we are all grateful to our key workers who continue to go to work every day to keep our essential services running. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus are ‘shielding’ and thereby face even more stringent restrictions than the rest of us.

One measure introduced to combat unemployment as a result of the lockdown and protect incomes, was the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, also known as the ‘furlough’ scheme. Through this, the UK Government – to which such powers are reserved – agreed to pay 80% of employee wages up to the value of £2,500 a month if their workplace was forced to close because of coronavirus restrictions. The idea was to help employers keep staff on their books, even if they had no work for them to do, rather than lay them off and force them into unemployment.

More than 935,000 companies employing over 7.5 million people applied to use this scheme which is fundamental to protecting jobs and incomes. I welcomed its introduction, but there are far too many people who have fallen through the cracks because of arbitrary cut-off dates and bureaucratic barriers imposed by the UK Government. Meanwhile, more than 1.7 million self-employed people have found themselves with no income and no support.

Thousands of others lost out due to changing their job at the wrong time. Seasonal workers and those with fixed-term or zero-hour contracts either do not qualify, or their employers are reluctant to apply.

With so many people already missing out on support, it was deeply concerning that UK Ministers were considering winding down furlough next month. I and fellow SNP MPs pressed UK Government Ministers to think again, particularly as different parts of the UK will come out of lockdown at different times. I was therefore delighted when the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme until October, albeit with employers expected to contribute a share of costs from August. This will allow employers to bring employees back to work part time, late summer, if possible. A further announcement on how this will work is expected at the end of this month.

Furlough is an essential response to this crisis. However, too many people have been excluded from it and left with little or no income and mounting debts. I have applied for a Westminster debate calling for a fairer and more comprehensive furlough scheme and a minimum income guarantee to support staff, employers and self-employed people through these difficult times. This will also be vital for businesses trying to recover from the lockdown’s economic impact.

The Bank of England expects the UK economy to shrink by 14% this year, the deepest recession in three centuries. This will undoubtedly impact upon millions of people. Many will lose their jobs, livelihoods and struggle to get by without further action.

While the lockdown has saved lives the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed millions of people, through no fault of their own, into hardship. It is vital that people supported in their time of need.