Financial support for jobs and livelihoods will continue “for the duration of the pandemic”, Boris Johnson has announced, telling MPs the government “will not put the rug out” from under businesses and workers.
But Mr Johnson was accused of “dithering and delaying” after he said that details of precisely what help will be retained will not be revealed until chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget on 3 March.
Setting out his roadmap for a gradual lifting of coronavirus restrictions, Mr Johnson said non-essential shops will not open until 12 April at the earliest, with pubs, restaurants and hotels subject to restrictions for longer and no date for people to stop working from home.
Businesses have warned of a wave of redundancies at the end of March, when VAT breaks, rates relief and support for the self-employed are due to cease and the end of April, when the furlough scheme is due to finish.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson told MPs: “In view of these cautious but I hope irreversible changes, people may be concerned about what these changes mean to the various support packages for livelihoods, for people and for the economy.
“So I want to reassure the House, we will not pull the rug out.
“For the duration of the pandemic, the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK.
“The chancellor will set out further details in the budget next Wednesday.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to make clear immediately what help will be available for businesses which may not be permitted to return to normal trade until mid-April or mid-June.
“I’m not questioning the health basis for that decision, which I support,” said Starmer.
“But I am reiterating what we’ve always said – that health restrictions must be accompanied by proper economic support.
“It makes no sense to announce today that businesses will be closed for many more weeks or months without announcing new economic support at the same time.
“The prime minister says the Budget will be next week. But there’s nothing stopping him saying today, that business rates relief will be extended, that furlough will be extended or that the VAT cut for hospitality and leisure will also be extended.
“Businesses are crying out for that certainty, and the prime minister should give it to them today.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the PM’s annoucement would leave workers worrying about their jobs and incomes during the gap between the scheduled end of furlough and the reopening of their company.
“The government must stop dithering and delaying and extend the full furlough scheme for at least the rest of 2021,” said Ms O’Grady. “And it must provide urgent support for the self-employed.
“With jobs and livelihoods hanging in the balance there is no reason to keep workers and businesses waiting.”
Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry said the road-map provided “some much-needed clarity”, but added: “The chancellor must deliver on the prime minister’s ‘whatever it takes’ pledge at next week’s budget.
“The implementation of, and deadlines for, business support measures need to reflect this road map to avoid forcing the great businesses of tomorrow under before they’ve had a chance to realise their potential.”
And the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, Dr Adam Marshall, said: “Even with the Prime Minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread.
“Many hard-hit businesses simply don’t have the cash reserves needed to hold out several more months before they are allowed to reopen. Businesses will hold the Prime Minister to his pledge to support firms for the duration of the pandemic.”