Coronavirus: Billions set aside to help the UK economy – now comes the hard part | Politics News


Three giant financial support packages pulled together in just nine days: the economic challenge momentous; the pace of work in Whitehall exhausting; the sums of money staggering.

The final set piece on Thursday was a generous £9bn scheme to support up to 3.8 million self-employed workers hit by coronavirus.

It came six days after Chancellor Rishi Sunak offered to help pay the wages of millions of salaried workers while he pumped another £7bn to put into the welfare system.

The previous week, Mr Sunak had announced a £350bn emergency package for the economy made up of state loan guarantees worth £330bn along with a further £20bn of handouts for struggling businesses. He also promised £12bn in emergency support in the budget earlier this month.

Tot it all up and you have £46bn in emergency support for businesses, the self-employed and the welfare system. Add the commitment to foot the wage bill for potentially millions of employees and the loan guarantee scheme and we’re approaching £400bn in state support announced in less than two weeks.

These colossal schemes now need to be rolled out. Set against the real economy, the scale of the task is acutely clear: far less ambitious operations than the British welfare and tax system are falling over from the force of demand brought about by these extraordinary times.

Online food retailer Ocado had to suspend its website because it couldn’t cope with the demand, while Sainsbury’s had to stop accepting new customers.

Banks including NatWest and Santander are struggling to cope with the volume of customers phoning to ask for mortgage holidays as some customers complain of three-hour waits.

In full: The government’s offer to the self-employed

Public and private sector, everyone is having to rewire their systems to cope with a new reality that has emerged in a matter of days – often when big chunks of their staff are off work self-isolating or sick due to COVID-19.

Getting the schemes up and running has required Herculean effort from ministers, the civil service, and other public bodies such as the Financial Conduct Authority, HMRC, and the Bank of England.

Take as an example the Coronavirus Business Support Loan Scheme. Announced on Tuesday 17 March, a new loan guarantee scheme running to £330bn was made operational in just six days.

The paperwork for the new programme was signed off by the business secretary Alok Sharma and the Treasury at 4am on Monday morning. Since its launch this week, the scheme has had over 30,000 inquiries.

But it has had early teething problems too, with the chancellor, Bank of England, and Financial Conduct Authority reprimanding banks for attaching stringent conditions to the new loans amid concerns lenders were insisting on personal guarantees – such as using people’s homes as collateral – on loans.

The Treasury has moved at breakneck speed, but the emerging theme of the crisis is the mismatch between the government racing to roll out support and people’s experiences.

Renters were assured that they will not face eviction due to coronavirus but some are being served notices; Universal Credit is widening support and processing a staggering number of claims (677,000 processed in the past nine days) but tens of thousands of people are struggling to get through due to the sheer demand. And now the self-employed have been offered support, but the system won’t be ready until June.

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It remains to be seen whether the immediate support – via loans or Universal Credit – is as readily available and accessible as Mr Sunak suggested it would be.

A Treasury source admits there will be bumps along the road as the government pulls together new ambitious schemes, saying: “This is hard and complicated, and we’re doing the only thing we can – being honest about those challenges.

“But hopefully people can see that the whole organisation is working its socks off night and day. We’ll keep doing that because there hasn’t been a more important moment in our life for public service.”

April will be the month when the rubber hits the road. The Whitehall machine must focus ruthlessly and relentlessly on delivering the schemes it has promised – people’s livelihoods and wellbeing in a time of acute anxiety depend on it.

It is, in the words of former business minister Anna Soubry, the disconnect between the grand scheme and the experience on the ground that “blights every minister, especially in a crisis”.

The ambition of this new chancellor plain to see, but in the end it will be all about the delivery.


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