UK plans extra help for businesses hit by Covid-19 crisis, even as new restrictions being considered

The UK government has faced growing calls from businesses and opposition parties to do more to help those affected.
The UK government has faced growing calls from businesses and opposition parties to do more to help those affected.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has drawn up rescue plans for UK businesses struggling to cope in areas that have been forced into local lockdowns due to the coronavirus, as ministers consider imposing new restrictions within days.

No firm date has been set for rolling out the package, which is dependent on the evolution of the pandemic and changes to the rules, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Treasury declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the government is weighing further options for tightening restrictions imminently, which could include measures such as closing pubs and restaurants in some parts of England where the virus is most prevalent, according to a separate person familiar with the matter. No final decisions have been made, the person said.

With about 17 million people in areas under stricter virus restrictions, the government has faced growing calls from businesses and opposition parties to do more to help those affected. On Wednesday (Oct 7), with infection rates continuing to rise across England, Mr Johnson pledged to help those in need.

"We will continue to provide support across the country, to put our arms around jobs and livelihoods in the country as we have done throughout this pandemic," the prime minister said in Parliament.

Mr Johnson and his team are trying to balance the public health priorities of getting control over rising infection rates against the need to keep the economy open, and to avoid piling up ever-growing debt to pay for pandemic support to businesses and workers.

His comment followed remarks by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who said last month he would be "ready to do more as the situation evolves".

With the coronavirus caseload now rising sharply in the United Kingdom, it is possible the new measures will be needed soon. More than 14,000 new daily cases were reported on Wednesday, almost a fivefold increase on a month ago.

Mr Johnson name-checked London as a city where the disease is spreading, as data showed 19 out of the 20 areas under local lockdown measures in England have seen a rise in infection rates. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ordered pubs to close for two weeks in its two biggest cities.

The prime minister has repeatedly said he does not want another national lockdown, but all options remain on the table if hospitalisations spiral out of control.

Local leaders in northern England are bracing themselves for further restrictions, as infection rates soar in cities including Liverpool and Manchester.

"I wish I could pretend that everything was going to be rosy in the Midlands or, indeed, in London where, alas, we are also seeing infections rise," Mr Johnson said in Parliament. "That is why we need a concerted national effort, we need to follow the guidance."

The people familiar with Mr Johnson's plans for business declined to provide details of the possible extra support measures.

The government has already announced grants of 1,500 pounds (S$2,636) for businesses forced to close for three weeks because of new coronavirus restrictions. But that is not enough for many to survive, and there have been no measures specifically to support workers at those businesses.