Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said he is “determined” to bring in a “deliverable and fair” coronavirus support package for struggling self-employed people.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Chancellor refused to commit to an exact day for unveiling the measures, saying designing such a package is “incredibly complicated”.
Boris Johnson’s government has come under sustained pressure to provide financial help for self-employed workers, who face a dramatic loss of income if forced to take time off work.
On Monday night, the Prime Minister announced the country is effectively in lockdown, with people told to stay at home except to shop for necessities, for one form of exercise a day or to provide care or help a vulnerable person.
Those who are considered key workers and cannot work from home are allowed to travel to and from work, but the PM also announced the closure of all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises.
Gatherings of more than two people are banned unless you all live in the same home, and all social events are banned, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies but excluding ceremonies.
The UK Government has already unveiled huge packages of support for businesses and, last Friday, for workers, the centrepiece of which is a “job retention” and income protection scheme to underwrite 80% of people’s wages.
But the Scottish Government is among those demanding urgent support for the self-employed.
Sunak told MPs on Tuesday: “There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers.
“But … rest assured that we absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what’s happening and are determined to find a way to support them.
“We just need to be confident that can be done in a way that is deliverable and is fair to the vast majority of the British workforce.”
Asked by the SNP’s business spokesman Richard Thompson about when more information about support for self-employed workers will be coming, the Chancellor said: “I’m not going to commit to a specific day until we know we can work through the details.
“Partly the issue is of course there are people whose incomes have been enormously impacted by what is going on currently, but there are also millions of people who are self-employed whose incomes may not have been impacted and indeed might be increasing.
“The ability for the government to distinguish between those people based on tax returns that are over a year and a half out of date poses some very significant challenges in terms of fairness and affordability.”
He acknowledged it would not be possible to protect every job and save every business during the coronavirus outbreak.
Sunak said: “There will be challenging times ahead and despite the significant economic interventions that we have put in place, we will not be able to protect every single job or save every single business.
“But I am confident that the measures we have put in place will provide support to millions of people and businesses, and ensure we do get through this, we get through it together and emerge on the other side both stronger and more united.”
Rachel Reeves, Labour chairwoman of the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee, has written to UK business Sscretary Alok Sharma calling for ministers to extend the income protection scheme to cover the self-employed and to increase the rate of statutory sick pay.
She said “The Chancellor’s package last week to support businesses and employees was welcome.
“But with self-employed and freelancers still not covered by support – even as many of their businesses are now subject to lockdown – there is a worrying gap in the government’s strategy to protect these livelihoods which urgently needs to be put right.”
Unite union boss Len McCluskey said workers were confused about the Government guidance and demanded extra help for the self-employed.
He said: “The millions of self-employed and insecure workers across the country will dread being sent home because it means that they will have no wage.
“The Government must work with trade unions to define the tougher isolation rules because we understand the reality of the workplace.”
He added: “Confused messages and lack of financial support are at odds with the urgency of this health emergency. Workers need clear direction and protection from government now.”