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Chancellor extends furlough scheme as Sturgeon mulls lockdown

In a significant climbdown, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that the furlough scheme (or Job Retention Scheme) would be extended across the UK until the end of March. It comes only weeks after Sunak insisted that it was right to wind-down the furlough scheme at the end of November and move to the less generous Job Support Scheme, which has now been postponed.

Mr Sunak said the scheme will pay up to 80% of a worker’s wages up to £2,500 a month and anyone made redundant after 23rd September can be rehired and put back on furlough. The scheme was originally extended to cover the new four-week lockdown in England but Boris Johnson’s comments in the House of Commons last Tuesday, that the furlough scheme would be available in other parts of the UK if they went into lockdown in the future, paved the way for the announcement last week.

Alison Thewliss, the Scottish National Party’s Treasury spokesperson at Westminster, said the move was “welcome” but added that it came after six months of sustained pressure from the SNP and other devolved governments.

Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly called for the furlough scheme to be extended, saying that an extension to the scheme could “have an impact on our decisions” with regards to tougher measures and lockdown in Scotland. She has resisted putting Scotland into lockdown at the same time as England, claiming that she would make decisions based on the circumstances in Scotland. But the Chancellor’s announcement affords Sturgeon the flexibility she has been calling for and would allow her to impose new restrictions without risking a tsunami of job losses and redundancies.

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Sturgeon worries that whilst the infection rate is stabilising, there is very little room to manoeuvre and that any public complacency could lead to a sharp rise in cases that would overwhelm hospitals. Speaking at her daily coronavirus press conference, Nicola Sturgeon said “I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s announcement on the extension of furlough but I deeply regret that it took so long to get to that point. The Scottish Government and others have been calling for a furlough to be extended significantly and at an 80 percent level for months now.

“The failure to do that before unfortunately has meant that many have lost their jobs who may not have lost their jobs had the commitment to furlough been there earlier. And businesses will perhaps have not been able to continue. So, I think that is a matter of regret.” She confirmed 1,072 new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours and a further 31 deaths from the virus. Ahead of this week’s review of tier levels in Scottish regions, she indicated that the consideration for restrictions was not just about stabilising infections but about driving down infection levels.

Her comments come amidst increasing speculation that tougher restrictions could be imposed nationwide in Scotland in the coming weeks.

She added: “That’s not me signalling we’re about to put the country in level 4. It is a signal about opening up too quickly.”

Image: Chris MacAndrew via Wikimedia Commons