Omicron: Furlough must be ready to go if new Covid restrictions imposed, ministers told

Exclusive: Business leaders and unions warn of impact of tougher public health measures without financial support

Anna Isaac,Ben Chapman
Thursday 02 December 2021 16:15
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<p>Hospitality industry leaders urged ministers not to bring back work from home guidance or social distancing</p>

Hospitality industry leaders urged ministers not to bring back work from home guidance or social distancing

The government must be ready to rapidly restart the furlough scheme in case more restrictions are needed to contain omicron, ministers have been told.

The warning from unions and business leaders came as it emerged ministers have discussed introducing stricter measures in response to growing concern about the new Covid-19 variant.

Measures under consideration include instructing the public to work from home where possible and limit their social contacts, The Independent can reveal.

Previously, the government had suggested that conversations had only touched on masks and transport and that additional restrictions had not been presented to ministers.

However, people familiar with briefings and deliberations told The Independent that extra measures were weighed as potential routes to try to contain the variant.

Fresh measures could be put in place “very fast” according to a person familiar with the government’s Covid-19 taskforce. Some ministers have already expressed concern at any prospect of reintroducing instructions to work from home, according to the same sources above.

Such a move might be required even if vaccines continue to reduce the chances of hospitalisation in cases of the new variant, as it still spreads much more easily than the currently dominant delta variant.

This is because the total number of people requiring hospital care could still rise if cases soar, even if they form a small share of total infections.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the government must be ready to step in to provide “immediate financial support” for jobs at “a worrying and uncertain time for workers and businesses”.

“Our hospitality, aviation and travel industries are barely getting back on their feet,” Ms O’Grady said. “Tighter restrictions without a furlough scheme would cause real damage to jobs and livelihoods and our recovery.”

The revelation that additional measures had already been discussed comes as the prime minister reiterated his call for people not to cancel their Christmas parties – after one of his ministers suggested people ought not to “snog” strangers, and another moved his work Christmas party to Zoom.

The contradicting messages followed a suggestion from Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, that people should limit their social interactions, remarks which caused a backlash from Conservative MPs who are opposed to any more restrictions.

Dr Harries, the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Witty, and the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, briefed the cabinet on Tuesday. This followed a range of discussions over the weekend including a meeting of advisors and cabinet ministers on Saturday evening and other discussions on Sunday.

A spokesperson for No 10 did not deny that discussions about whether to introduce measures, including a work from home instruction, had taken place between ministers and advisers.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that “measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant”.

Hospitality bosses urged ministers to only consider another round of restrictions “as a very last resort”, warning that the industry remained in a fragile state with the future of many businesses still uncertain.

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said the sector was at a “critical point” in its recovery.

“If there were to be a consideration for further restrictions or a period of lockdown, the government would have to consider a range of financial support mechanisms including furlough to ensure the survival of the sector,” he said.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, confirmed that the trade body, which represents businesses employing 3 million people, had not been made aware by ministers of any discussions about further restrictions.

Ms Nicholls welcomed the government’s official line, which recognised the investment hospitality firms had made to ensure venues are safe.

“It underlines their equally clear assertion that there is no need for further additional restrictions and that there is no need for people to cancel their bookings or change their plans,” she said.

“People can be confident in continuing to go to Christmas parties and meet family and friends safely in hospitality and we firmly endorse the current plans.”

The GMB union threw its backing behind a reintroduction of furlough if government gives the order for people to work from home.

"We need a clear plan from the government in advance, so people know what’s coming,” said Dan Shears, GMB’s national health director.

Mike Brewer, chief economist at the Resolution Foundation, said that any closure of parts of the economy, such as large-scale events, may require sectorally focused grants or other support for businesses affected.

“For now, the government should prioritise clear public health guidance, which should be complemented by a far more generous and effective sick pay regime,” he added.

“And we all need to accept that the recovery from the Covid economic crisis is far from complete.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have taken decisive action and introduced proportionate measures to slow the seeding and spread of this variant.

“While we continue to monitor the situation, vaccines remain our best line of defence and we continue to bolster those defences with an accelerated booster roll-out.”

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