UK business leaders have expressed “relief” after the government committed to pay the wages of employees unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Confederation of British Industry said firms were “overwhelmed with relief” by the “landmark” pledge.
It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson also ordered cafes, pubs and restaurants to close from Friday night.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who announced the support package at the daily coronavirus briefing with the PM, said closing pubs and restaurants would have a “significant impact” on businesses.
But he added the government intervention – covering wages of up to £2,500 a month – would mean workers should be able to keep their jobs, even if their employer could not afford to pay them.
It is understood the wage subsidy will apply to firms where bosses have already had to lay off workers due to the pandemic, as long as they are brought back into the workforce and instead granted a leave of absence.
The government had been under growing pressure to intervene to support workers to prevent mass unemployment as a result of measures directed against the outbreak.
The CBI, the UK’s biggest business group, said it was a “landmark” offering from the government.
“It marks the start of the UK’s economic fightback – an unparalleled joint effort by enterprise and government to help our country emerge from this crisis with the minimum possible damage,” director general Carolyn Fairbairn told BBC Newsnight.
Nik Antona, national chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), said: “Whilst the pubs industry will be devastated by the decision to force closure, it is exactly the type of decisive leadership that has been called for this week as many pubs hung in limbo.
“Pubs and the wider hospitality industry now have clear instruction that closing their doors is the right thing to do and the confidence that the government will support their staff and their business.”
The British Beer and Pub Association said the chancellor’s new measures would help “safeguard thousands of livelihoods”.
Tim Foster, co-founder of The Yummy Pub Co, which runs four pubs in and around London, said the new measures were overdue but would stop his 89 members of staff being laid off.
“I’m unbelievably relieved. On Monday there was no business next Friday, which I spent 12 years building,” he said.
But some business groups warned of the potential risk to firms if they had to wait for the money to arrive.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, said many businesses faced rent payments before the support was due.
“Banks and landlords need to do more to help us bridge the gap towards this generous government support. Damage is being done now, so we need help now.”
The Federation of Small Businesses warned the delay in wages help – potentially until the end of April – meant many small firms would still face “an immediate, potentially terminal cash flow crunch”.
The wage package is the latest in a series of government moves aimed at easing the burden on businesses and their employees.
However, there was not the same wages guarantee for the self-employed. Instead, Mr Sunak increased benefits that many will have to fall back on.
The cinema workers’ union Bectu said the measures were a “devastating blow” to its freelance and self-employed members.
Philippa Childs, head of the union, said those workers needed “much more” support than was promised during Friday’s press conference.
This move is an incredible intervention for any British government, let alone a Conservative one, but proportionate to the size of the terrible, but temporary, economic impact that could follow the coronavirus shutdowns.
In theory, it should save hundreds of thousands of jobs. Perhaps more. Employers have to accept that the government is doing something they would have never imagined a UK government to do.
At 80% cent of wages up to £2,500 a month, it is a scheme more generous than some of the high welfare Scandinavian countries. It instantly transforms the social safety net of this nation.
The new measures came as Mr Johnson said the closures of cafes, pubs and restaurants would be enforced “strictly” and that the situation would be reviewed each month.
He also announced that all the UK’s nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres had been told to close “as soon as they reasonably can”.
“The more effectively we follow the advice we are given, the faster this country will stage both a medical and an economic recovery in full,” the prime minister said.
It follows similar measures taken in other countries – including in Ireland, where pubs and bars were asked to close from last Sunday.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths in the UK rose to 177 on Friday – with 167 in England, six in Scotland, three in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
The latest announcement came after most UK schools closed their doors to a majority of pupils indefinitely on Friday, in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Many will reopen on Monday with a skeleton staff to accommodate the children of “key workers”.
Pupils whose exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic will be given grades estimated by their teachers, the government has said.
In other key UK developments:
- The PM said he plans to chair another meeting with representatives of supermarkets on Saturday amid continuing concern over panic buying
- Social distancing would be needed for “at least half of the year” to stop intensive care units being overwhelmed, according to the government’s scientific advisers
- The deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, insisted the UK has a “perfectly adequate” supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff
- MPs from all the main parties are picking up their stethoscopes and returning to old jobs in health and social care in a bid to help services tackle the coronavirus crisis