Boris Johnson has ordered pubs and restaurants across the country to close as the Government set out “unprecedented” measures to cover the wages of workers whose jobs were under threat from the coronavirus outbreak.
On another momentous day, the Prime Minister said cinemas, nightclubs, theatres, gyms and leisure centres should close their doors from Friday night to slow the spread of Covid-19 and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by new cases.
The move was supported by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
At his daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson acknowledged the ban – which also covers betting shops and casinos – went against “the freedom-loving instincts of the British people”.
But he said the measures were needed to achieve the 75% reduction in “unnecessary” social gatherings required to have an impact on the infection rate.
“We are going to defeat this disease with a huge national effort to slow the spread by reducing unnecessary social contact,” he said.
“By your actions, your restraint and your sacrifice, we are putting this country in a better and stronger position, where we will be able to save literally thousands of lives, of people of all ages, people who don’t deserve to die now.”
2/ For the first time in our history, the British government is going to step in and help pay people’s wages.
Government grants will cover 80% of the salary of retained workers, up to a total of £2,500 a month, that’s above UK median earnings level.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) March 20, 2020
He was followed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak who vowed there was “no limit” to the Government’s support for the economy as he set out a coronavirus job protection scheme to help employers hit by the outbreak avoid laying off staff.
In a move previously unthinkable for a Conservative government, he said they would be able to apply to HM Revenue and Customs to cover 80% of the wages of staff they keep on up to £2,500 a month.
It followed criticism that his £350 billion emergency support package for the economy earlier this week concentrated on businesses but did little for their staff.
In further measures, Mr Sunak said the Government was deferring the next quarter of VAT payments for businesses until the end of June – providing a direct cash injection of more than £30 billion – equivalent to 1.5% of GDP.
For those who still found themselves out of a job, he said he was increasing the Universal Credit standard allowance for the next 12 months by £1,000 a year, and raising the working tax credit basic element by the same amount, at a cost of almost £7 billion.
In a direct message to employers, he said: “The Government is doing its best to stand behind you and I’m asking you to do your best to stand behind our workers.”
The announcement came after scientists advising the Government warned that restrictions to control the spread of the virus will need to be in place for most of a year – at least.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling said while the severity of measures could fluctuate, “stricter” measures would need to be enforced for at least half of the year in order to keep cases at a level the NHS can cope with.
( PA Graphics)
These could include school closures and social distancing for everyone, while less restrictive measures include isolating cases and households.
It comes as a further 39 people in England were confirmed to have died after testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK death toll to 177.
Mr Johnson said the restrictions on pubs and cafes and other premises would be reviewed on a monthly basis as he appealed to people to stay at home “as far as possible”.
“Some people may of course be tempted to go out tonight. But please don’t,” he said.
“You may think you are invincible, but there is no guarantee you will get mild symptoms, and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others.”
The Prime Minister promised a “massive effort” to ensure the NHS had the ventilators and intensive care beds it needed to cope in the weeks and months ahead.
This is a breakthrough. @RishiSunak has shown real leadership. We’re glad he’s listened to unions and taken vital steps to support working families. Employers can now be confident they’ll be able to pay their wage bills. They must urgently reassure staff that their jobs are safe.
— Frances O’Grady (@FrancesOGrady) March 20, 2020
The commitment came as it emerged that a major London hospital had declared a “critical incident” on Thursday due to a surge in patients with Covid-19.
In a message to staff, Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow said that it did not have enough space for patients requiring critical care.
Mr Sunak’s support package for jobs was broadly welcomed by both employers’ organisations and trade unions.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said it was a “breakthrough” and praised the Chancellor for showing “real leadership”.
“We’re glad he’s listened to unions and taken vital steps to support working families,” she said.
“Employers can now be confident they’ll be able to pay their wage bills. They must urgently reassure staff that their jobs are safe.”
I welcome the Chancellor’s shift in direction but unfortunately it’s not far enough or fast enough. pic.twitter.com/4cwLRFbqT1
— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) March 20, 2020
British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said it would provide “desperately needed breathing room” for businesses.
“The Government now needs to go foot-to-floor to ensure that details of the job retention scheme and loan guarantees reach firms on the ground as soon as possible,” he said.
However, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Mr Sunak had not gone “far enough or fast enough”.
“The Government must give people the economic security to stay at home by lifting the level of statutory sick pay, but it appears that the Government hasn’t done that today,” he said.