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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson under pressure to extend UK jobs retention scheme

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came under pressure on Wednesday to prolong the nation's furlough scheme to protect jobs a day after imposing new restrictions due to a flare-up in COVID-19 cases.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour party and Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP)'s delegation in Westminster, both urged the government to extend the jobs retention scheme following the decision on Tuesday to impose new restrictive measures.

The furlough scheme is currently set to expire at the end of October.

Starmer told Johnson that "health measures and economic measures are now dangerously out of synch".

"This is not theoretical. Yesterday 6,000 jobs were lost at Whitbread, one of the major employers in the hospitality sector," Starmer said.

He added that major groups including the British Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Federation of Small Businesses as well as the governor of the Bank of England "are all calling on the Prime Minister to stop and rethink support for businesses affected, don't withdraw furlough."

"We've been saying it for months, when is the Prime Minister finally going to act?," he went on.

Blackford, meanwhile, warned that the country could be heading for "another winter of discontent" if the furlough scheme is withdrawn as expected in October and the country exits the Brexit transition period without a deal with the European Union.

"The Prime Minister must announce an immediate extension, no half-measures, no half-baked projects to this vital and life-saving scheme," he urged.

Johnson retorted to both that there should be "absolutely no doubt that the work this government has done to protect the economy of this country, to support the jobs of 12 million people through the furlough scheme and overall expenditures of about £160 billion (€174 billion) has been unexampled anywhere else in the world."

He also lashed out at the Labour leader accusing him of "seeking to create political opportunity out of a crisis, out of the difficulties and danger this country is going through whilst we are taking the tough decisions."

"What we will do, as I said throughout, is continue to put our arms around the people of this country going through a very tough time and come up with the appropriate, creative and imaginative scheme to keep them in work and keep the economy moving," he said.

For Blackford, the Prime Minister's answer was "so poor". He added that "the last thing those 61,000 Scots (whose jobs are at risk if the furlough scheme is withdrawn) are looking for is a hug" from the British leader.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, up to three million jobs will still be on the furlough scheme when it ends in October. It estimates that one million jobs currently supported by the government's programme may never return when it phases out and that the remaining two million "would be viable if support was extended into the new year".

So far, about 695,000 jobs were lost between March and August in the UK, the Office for National Statistics estimated last week.

New measures announced on Tuesday to suppress the spread of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus include tighter rules on the wearing of face coverings and the mandatory closing of all pubs, bars, and restaurants at 10 pm. People able to work from home were once again encouraged to do so. Tougher fines for breaches of the rules were also introduced.

The UK is Europe's most severely impacted country with nearly 42,000 deaths recorded since the beginning of the outbreak, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.