Rishi Sunak plans rescue package for UK businesses

PTI, Mar 17, 2020, 5:57 PM IST

London: Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is getting ready to unveil a rescue package on Tuesday, March 17 for businesses hit by the coronavirus outbreak, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced unprecedented measures for everyone to refrain from social contact and unnecessary travel.

The near-lockdown in place to tackle the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed 55 lives in the UK, has threatened the closure of large numbers of businesses in the country, including pubs, bars, and restaurants.

The package being finalized by the Indian-origin finance minister will build on the 12 billion pound he had set out in his first Budget last week, when he suspended business rates for many firms in England, put in an emergency temporary loan facility in place, extended statutory sick pay for workers, set up a “hardship fund” for local authorities and boosted NHS funding.

He is chairing a committee on Tuesday to address the escalating economic repercussions of the pandemic and will discuss further potential measures with Johnson to be unveiled later.

“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and to stop all unnecessary travel,” Johnson said during a daily briefing from Downing Street on Monday as he unveiled the most draconian measures on the movement of people in peacetime Britain.

“That means that if possible you should not go out, even to buy food or essentials, other than for exercise and in that case at a safe distance from others,” he said.

Advice on avoiding all social contact is “particularly important” for those aged over 70, pregnant women and those with other underlying health conditions, Johnson said.

People have been advised to start working from home “where they possibly can” and “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues”. It triggered a string of event cancellations across the board, including West End plays, sporting fixtures and the annual UK Asian Film Festival which was due to begin next week.

We are in a war against an invisible killer,” UK health secretary Matt Hancock said, adding that emergency legislation to tackle the virus would be introduced in Parliament on Thursday.

The total number of people in the UK to test positive for the virus has risen by 171 in a day to hit a total of 1,543. London is facing the brunt of the crisis and is said to be nearing the peak faster than other parts of the country, with the number of cases set to rise dramatically within days.

“It looks like we’re on the fast upswing or just about to get there and that’s the reason to want to get in quite quickly with these measures,” said Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

Measures would be escalated once again in the coming days, when those with underlying health problems would be told to isolate themselves for three months. The UK government says it wants to ensure that the period of maximum protection coincides with the peak of the epidemic.

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