Chancellor Sunak’s announcement of a historic bailout that would be implemented to combat the effects of COVID-19 on thousands of workers across the country has had mixed responses. This emergency rescue package is distinguished by its interventionist policies, which are placed in order to help support British workers who are struggling as a result of the pandemic.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK has pushed thousands of workers to self-isolate and take time off work. This measure was previously taken with more reluctance, as people were unsure how their loss of income would be compensated. However, on Friday, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an emergency rescue package that, ‘for the first time in history’, sees the government ‘stepping in and paying people’s wages’.
The economic battle against COVID-19: what are the measures being taken?
In a move that has been seen as ideologically uncharacteristic of the Conservative Party, the role of the state has expanded to undertake a stronger sense of social responsibility. As a part of these measures, Sunak announced that 80 per cent of workers’ salaries — up to £2500 a month — would be covered by the state, for the next three months. To help facilitate this scheme, a coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been set up. Employers can now apply for a grant from HMRC to cover the wages of those who are nor working, but have not been laid off. Interestingly, the Chancellor is placing ‘no limit’ on how much money will fund the scheme.
In addition to this, Sunak has extended the interest-free loan scheme for struggling businesses, from six months to a year. Businesses will also not be expected to pay VAT before the end of June. The economic implications of this are huge. Estimates are that, ‘the bill to the taxpayer would be a minimum of £60bn, or around 3 per cent of our national income, but could potentially be much much higher’, writes Robert Peston. However, it is starkly refreshing to see the notion of social responsibility being privileged at a time like this. Sunak’s speech has prioritised the sentiment of national unity at a crucial time of need, which will hopefully see a more profound regard for the social and human impact of the pandemic on ordinary people.
Furthermore, the overarching aim of this procedure is to take the burden off the NHS, which is currently over-whelmed and overstretched. Promoting self-isolation for those who were otherwise working and engaging in social contact is a means to decelerate the spread of the virus, in a hope to flatten the peak number of cases.
The opposition’s response
Nevertheless, there are still a few shortcomings that the government did not address. Many are calling for more concrete action to be taken that would protect the rights of the self-employed, an area of Sunak’s plan that is currently nebulous. Furthermore, a key concern is that statutory sick pay is still not sufficient; it currently stands at £94.25 per week, for up to 28 weeks. Another main point of contention, which has been an enduring issue since before the outbreak, yet has exacerbated consequences now, is the five-week wait placed on getting Universal Credit payments. At a crucial time when Universal Credit is a line of support for freelance and self-employed workers, this policy could prove to be erroneous and costly.
Indeed, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has voiced the need to take further measures, claiming that Sunak ‘hasn’t gone far enough’. The concern stems from the prospect of there being delays in people collecting their wages. Nevertheless, Tim Roache, the General Secretary of the Labour-affiliated GMB Union has called it a ‘supportive package’, encouraging everyone to unite during this time.
A post-pandemic consensus?
Without drawing fallacious historical parallels, some are comparing the effects of this pandemic to a time reminiscent of the post-war period. Indeed, this was succeeded by a period of political consensus that espoused social cooperation.
This pandemic has seen political leaders from across the political spectrum adopt the same philosophy of social cooperation. Sunak’s words — ‘you are not alone’ — echo the very sentiments of this post-war consensus, which suggest that national cooperation and unity are more important than ever. His emphasis on a communal ‘we’, who he hopes will ‘undertake a collective national effort’, has strong implications of communitarianism.
Whether the Conservatives will uphold this commitment to social responsibility is yet to be seen. Certainly, it would help to rectify their legacy of implementing austerity measures that stood in stark opposition to the very principles that Sunak’s speech championed.
Regardless of what the future holds, perhaps this crisis has unearthed the importance of social responsibility as the glue that is keeping society unified and functioning. And those fighting for us on the front-lines — the doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical workers, teachers, shop workers, cleaning workers, social workers, as well as countless other public sector employees — are heroically embodying this very message.