During the pandemic, millions of people’s wages in the UK were paid by the government to prevent the closure of businesses and a surge in unemployment. The furlough scheme officially came to an end in September 2021. However, with the spread of the Omicron variant and the fear of further restrictions being put in place, there has been a call by many to re-introduce the furlough scheme.
The furlough scheme
The furlough scheme began when the government brought in, what was officially called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in early 2020. This was when the pandemic first forced businesses across the country to close. The scheme worked by paying part of employees’ wages, preventing the need for businesses to make their staff redundant, therefore avoiding a rapid rise in unemployment along with the associated costs. It also avoided the financial and emotional costs of firing and then rehiring workers post pandemic. Under the scheme, furloughed workers received 80% of their wages, up to £2500 a month, if they couldn’t work because of the impact of coronavirus. Employees were able to maintain the security of employment and the payments helped furloughed workers pay their bills.
The scheme saw billions of pounds spent paying the wages of employees whose firms were forced to close temporarily. It could be argued that the expense of the scheme was a huge disadvantage. However, the alternative would have been for the government to pay unemployment-related benefits. Despite the furlough scheme being deemed necessary, it was not without its drawbacks for the structure of businesses. Rather than businesses adapting to changes in the economy and consumer demands, they could decide to claim the money and avoid the need to restructure. There was also concern about the length of the furlough scheme and the ability of businesses to bounce back post-pandemic.
Since the start of the scheme, the specifics of what was paid and who received it changed over time, especially once the economy started opening again. Initial steps were made to allow part-time return to work and the scheme started to wind down over the summer of 2021, with the government covering less of the wages and businesses covering more. From July, employers had to provide 10% of the wages of their furloughed staff, with the government paying the rest. This then increased to 20% in August with the CJRS coming to a complete end on 30 September 2021. At this point, there were around 1.6 million employees still receiving payment from the scheme.
Impact on Employment
With the end to the furlough scheme in September 2021, there were concerns that this would lead to a large number of redundancies. However, data indicate that has not happened and there is a record number of job vacancies. Official figures show that UK employment rose in October, confirming the strength of the labour market. The Office for National Statistics stated that the employment rate rose to 75.5% in the three months to October, up 0.2 percentage points on the previous quarter. This is believed to be driven by a rise in part-time work, which had dropped sharply during the pandemic. However, it is important to note that the strength in these numbers was prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
In November, the government had ruled out once again bankrolling people’s wages at enormous expense. However, the Chancellor is now under pressure to respond to the latest announcements around the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. The fast-spreading mutation of the Covid-19 virus, Omicron, is posing a fresh threat to the economy.
On the 8 December, the Prime Minister announced new ‘Plan B’ Covid rules for England. As part of these new rules to limit the spread of Omicron, people are being asked to work from home again if possible and face masks are compulsory in most public places. Covid passes or a negative Covid test result are also needed to get into nightclubs and large venues.
Scotland and Wales have brought in further restrictions. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has asked people to limit socialising to three households at a time in the run-up to Christmas. Shops and hospitality venues in Scotland must bring back physical distancing and screens. In Wales, nightclubs will close after 26 December and social distancing will be reintroduced in shops.
Although the hospitality industry and retail sector remain open, they are facing a slump in trade thanks to the new restrictions and worries among the general public. With the work-from-home guidance and advice from health officials that people should limit their social interactions, pubs and restaurants have seen widespread cancellations in the run-up to Christmas. Trade is suffering and these mass cancellations come at a time when these sectors were hoping for bumper trade after a dismal last couple of years.
In light of these concerns, ministers are now being urged to guarantee support in case businesses have to shut. Despite the indication that it would be highly unlikely that the UK would experience a full return to the restrictions seen at previous stages of the crisis, the International Monetary Fund has stated that the UK government should be drawing up contingency plans. The IMF has called for a mini-furlough scheme in the event that the Omicron variant forces the government to close parts of the economy. The idea is that the mini-furlough scheme would see a limited version of the multi-billion-pound job subsidy scheme being rolled out if firms are forced to close.
There are strong calls for there to be targeted support, which this mini-furlough scheme could offer. The Resolution Foundation argued in mid-December that a furlough scheme tied solely to the hospitality industry would help prevent job loses in an industry that is currently suffering once again. It calculated that the cost of a hospitality-only furlough scheme would be £1.4 billion a month if it were pitched at the original level of 80% of wage support. If a January to March sector-specific scheme were to be introduced it is estimated to cost around £5 billion, a small cost in comparison to £46 billion spent on furlough so far.
Any reintroduction of a furlough scheme would be a jolt for the government. This would mean a return to the 2020-style arguments around protecting livelihoods and businesses, a contrast to the recent messaging from the Treasury of restoring public finances. There is also concern about how this will all impact on current growth predictions and inflation concerns. The IMF expects the growth of the UK economy to be 6.8% in 2021 and 5% in 2022. However, the drawback from this is that the recovery would also be accompanied by rising inflation. It has been suggested, therefore, that interest rate increases from the Bank of England would be needed to keep inflation under control, while at the same time being not so great as to kill off growth.
It was widely expected that the Bank of England would again put off a rate hike in order to wait to see the economic impact of Plan B restrictions. However, on Thursday 16 December, interest rates were raised for the first time in more than three years. Despite the fears that Omicron could slow the economy by causing people to spend less, Bank Rate was raised from 0.1% to 0.25% . This came in the wake of data showing prices climbing at the fastest pace for 10 years.
Government finances would take another huge hit if the furlough scheme were revived. But a version of such a scheme is likely to be necessary to avert an unemployment crisis and the attendant costs.
However, in resisting further measures, the government has argued that it has already acted early to help control the virus’s spread by rapidly rolling out booster jabs, while avoiding unduly damaging economic and social restrictions.
The government also argues that some of the measures from the total £400 billion Covid support package since the start of the pandemic will continue to help businesses into Spring 2022. Such measures include government-backed loans for small- and medium-sized businesses until June 2022, a reduction in VAT from 20% to 12.5% until March 2022 and business rates relief for eligible retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses until March 2022. Talks are ongoing with hospitality and and other business organisations directly affected by Covid restrictions.
The British Chambers of Commerce has argued that current measures are not enough and has called for VAT on hospitality and tourism to be cut back to its emergency rate of 5% and for the 100% business rates relief for retailers to return. The CBI has also called for any unspent local authority grants to be spent now to help affected firms and that further help, including business rates relief, should be on the table if restrictions continue after the government’s 5 January review date. The IMF said that with strong policy support, the economy had proved resilient, but it stressed that a return of some of the measures that prevented mass unemployment and large-scale business failures might soon be needed.
Infections caused by the new Omicron variant are rising rapidly, doubling every two to three days. It is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK soon with health officials warning it may be the most significant threat since the start of the pandemic. However, it is not yet known what the full extent of the impact of this new variant on the NHS will be, leaving the severity of future restrictions uncertain.
But what is evident is that the course of the pandemic has changed and there is a growing case for the government to start planning for new support packages. Although a reintroduction of the furlough scheme was hoped not to be needed on the path out of the pandemic, a short detour may be required in the form of a mini-furlough scheme. The size and reach of any support put in place will depend upon any further restrictions on economic activity.
- The UK hospitality industry needs its own furlough scheme
- Coronavirus: Conor Murphy calls for furlough to be reinstated
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- COVID-19: IMF tells UK to be ready to redeploy furlough if ‘widespread’ closures needed to tackle Omicron
- UK employment rises despite end of furlough scheme
- Interest rates rise for first time in three years
- Covid: New Plan B rules on working from home and masks announced for England
- Scots urged to limit socialising to three households
The Guardian, Nils Pratley (16/12/21)
BBC News (17/12/21)
Sky News, John-Paul Ford Rojas (16/12/21)
Sky News, John-Paul Ford Rojas (14/12/21)
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss (14/12/21)
BBC News (17/12/21)
BBC News, Francesca Gillett and Dulcie Lee (8/12/21)
BBC News (15/12/21)
- Should the level of support for business return to the levels in place earlier in 2021?
- What measures could a government put in place to curtail the spread of the Omicron variant that have only a minimal impact on business and employment?
- Compare the UK measures to curtail the spread of the virus with those used in some other European countries.
- What are the arguments for and against (a) re-introducing the furlough scheme as it was earlier in 2021; (b) introducing a version restricted to the hospitality sector?