Coronavirus: Millions of self-employed British workers are promised help

A woman wearing a protective face mask and gloves holds a placard complaining about the lack of suport for the self-employed and zero hours contract workers, in Edinburgh on March 23, 2020.
A woman wearing a protective face mask and gloves holds a placard complaining about the lack of suport for the self-employed and zero hours contract workers, in Edinburgh on March 23, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Millions of Britons who work for themselves will be promised a rescue package as the coronavirus pandemic threatens their incomes.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will announce assistance to the self-employed on Thursday (March 26) in what will be his fourth set of emergency measures to cope with the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government battles growing criticism of its response to the spread of the virus, which has been slower than some other countries.

The measures will supplement provisions for tax breaks, loans and hardship grants that are already available to the self-employed.

"It's been tricky to work out a package that will address the needs of as many people as possible," the prime minister said in a news conference Wednesday. "But that has been done, it's been done at incredible speed."

This is the latest set of policies to deal with the UK's virus outbreak in just over two weeks and comes in response to political pressure to give freelancers and the self-employed some relief to match that of workers who were guaranteed 80 per cent of their wages if they can't work or lose their jobs due to the economic downturn.

There are roughly 5 million self-employed in the UK.

Pressed on the issue of aid at Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said he shared the "the desire to get parity of support" for the self-employed and "ensure that everybody gets the support they need."

The Resolution Foundation said in a report that the government should widen wage subsidies to self-employed workers and those who have already lost their jobs, rather than limiting the programme to people put on temporary leave by their employers.

 
 
 
 

Such a promise would cost around 3.6 billion pounds (S$6.18 billion) for three months if 1 million people claimed it, the think tank said.

In Germany, there's a 50 billion-euro (S$79.06 billion) liquidity pot for the country's 3 million self-employed and tiny businesses, while France has created a "solidarity fund" and the government has pledged to pay out 1,500 euros to self-employed workers who meet certain criteria.

Mr Sunak has warned it will take time for any help to actually reach the self-employed.

On March 11, he unveiled 12 billion pounds of measures to mitigate the effects of the outbreak on the economy, as part of his first budget.

As evidence mounted that the crisis was snowballing, he followed up with a 350-billion pound stimulus package comprising government-backed loans, grants and tax cuts for struggling companies.

Then, last Friday, he said the government would pay a portion of citizens' wages for the first time in the nation's history, as he announced a package that also included 7 billion pounds of extra welfare spending.