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Coronavirus: Lifeline thrown to 200,000 workers as Treasury extends job retention scheme

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak has thrown a lifeline to more than 200,000 workers after agreeing to widen the coronavirus job retention scheme.

The scheme, unveiled last month, allows firms affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to apply for a Treasury grant to cover 80% of each of their employee’s wages, up to £2,500 per month.

Initially, in order to qualify for the scheme, employees had to be on a company’s payroll on 28 February this year.

However, following a review, the Treasury has now said the eligibility date has been extended to 19 March – the day before the scheme was announced by the Chancellor.

“Any entity with a UK payroll can apply, including businesses, charities, recruitment agencies and public authorities,” the UK Government said in a statement.

SNP deputy Treasury spokesman Stephen Flynn welcomed the announcement, he said: “The fact that the Chancellor has listened to the many voices calling for an extension and shifted his position has to be welcomed.

“What we now need is for those many employers who were caught in the most difficult of circumstances to take a just approach, re-employ those staff members that were let go, and immediately furlough them.”

Stephen Flynn

The Treasury expects the scheme to be fully operational by next week.

The announcement came as the number of hospital deaths in the UK rose by 761 to 12,868.

Of those deaths, the UK Government has confirmed 19 are among those working for the health service, but announcements from NHS trusts and tributes from loved ones indicate the true number could be as high as 40.

UK chief medical office Chris Whitty, speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference yesterday, said the UK death toll may rise further later this week, but said he believes the UK is “probably” reaching the peak of the outbreak.

“My expectation would be that the number of deaths may well go up because there has been after every weekend we see a dip over the weekend and for the two days afterwards, and then an increase as we catch up the numbers,” he told the press conference.

“And after a long, four-day weekend, there may well be a bounce tomorrow.”

He added: “We do all think that this has flattened out but sadly we do think that high numbers of deaths will continue for a short while on from where we are at the moment.”

Prof Whitty reiterated: “At the moment we are not yet at the point where we can say confidently and safely this is now past the peak and we can start thinking very much about the next phases.”

The comments come as the UK Government’s emergency Cobra committee prepares to meet today to consider reviewing the lockdown.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, appearing alongside Prof Whitty last night, suggested that social distancing restrictions would be extended, saying: “We cannot let up in our efforts, we cannot let go of the hard work that’s been done so far.

“This shared sacrifice – and I know it’s a sacrifice – is starting to work but we will not lift these measures until it is safe to do so.”

Asked why ministers had not been forthcoming in explaining its lockdown exit strategy, unlike other countries, Mr Hancock said: “Different countries are in different stages in this epidemic and one of the things that I think we have learnt during this crisis is that the clarity of the guidance to the public is incredibly important and hence we repeat it.”

Mr Hancock came under fire following the press conference for offering social care workers a badge to recognise their work.

The health secretary said the green badge would give carers access to the same “recognitions and benefits” as NHS staff.

Rehana Azam, the GMB union’s national secretary for public services, said: “Our care workers need more than a badge and a pat on their head to define their precious role in society.

“They need the protective equipment and testing on the front line now to protect their lives.