UK govt urged to extend worker support after reopening delay

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People sit at outdoor tables at a restaurant in Soho, in London, Monday, June 14, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to confirm Monday that the next planned relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in England will be delayed as a result of the spread of the delta variant first identified in India. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON (AP) — The British government fended off calls Tuesday to provide more financial support to businesses and workers who will suffer from its decision to delay the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in England by four weeks to July 19.

Although many restrictions have been eased in recent weeks, allowing large parts of the U.K. economy to reopen, a number of businesses, particularly in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, have remained shuttered because it was not financially viable.

After months of planning, those businesses had been preparing to reopen on June 21, the date the government had earmarked for the possible lifting of restrictions on social contact. But a recent spike in new infections as a result of the more contagious delta variant upended that plan.

Scientists advising the government reckon that the delta variant, which was first found in India, is between 40% to 80% more transmissable than the previous dominant strain in the U.K. The alpha variant was largely behind a winter surge of infections and deaths that left the country with Europe’s highest virus-related death toll at nearly 128,000.

“Now is the time to ease off the accelerator, because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday when announcing the delay.

Following the announcement, unions joined business leaders to urge the Conservative government to compensate those affected by the delay.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the government should delay asking businesses to make contributions to the salary support program it has operated since March 2020.

Under the Job Retention Scheme, the government has been paying 80% of the salaries of those unable to work because of the restrictions. But beginning in July, that support goes down to 70% with firms contributing 10%, a change O’Grady fears could lead to job losses. The scheme becomes less generous through the summer before it finally expires at the end of September.

“We can’t afford for more companies to go the wall, taking good jobs with them,” she said.

And the Confederation of British Industry urged the government to hold back on the planned tapering of tax relief for businesses and extend the commercial rent moratorium for the sectors most impacted.

“We must acknowledge the pain felt by businesses in hospitality, leisure and live events,” the CBI’s director-general Tony Danker said.

Cabinet Officer minister Michael Gove, a close ally to Johnson, appeared to indicate that no more financial help will be forthcoming, saying that the government’s support programs understood there could be delays in the roadmap out of lockdown.

Gove told Sky News the “worst thing for business” would have been to allow them to open up again and then having to reimpose restrictions.

He laid out his hope that the government won’t have to delay reopening again.

“It would require an unprecedented and remarkable alteration in the progress of the disease,” he said.

Johnson said the delay in easing restrictions would be used to drive up immunity levels, limiting the spread of the delta variant when restrictions are fully lifted.

He said the government was accelerating its vaccination drive and that by July 19, two-thirds of the U.K.’s adult population will have been offered two vaccine shots, including everyone over 50. He also said everyone over 18 will have been offered a jab by then, earlier than the previous target.

As of Monday, around 62% of the British population had received one vaccine shot, while about 45% had got two jabs.

A new analysis released Monday from Public Health England showed that two doses of the main vaccines in the U.K.’s rollout are highly effective against hospitalization from the delta variant — 96% in the case of Pfizer and 92% for the AstraZeneca jab.

Scientists have generally welcomed the delay in fully reopening English businesses as it means the peak in the expected third wave of infections will be lower than it otherwise would have been.

“We’re at a critical point in the ongoing race between the virus and our vaccination program,” said Imperial College epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson.

On Monday, the British government reported 7,742 new confirmed cases, one of the highest daily numbers since the end of February. The delta variant accounted for around 90% of all new infections.

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