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One in four UK firms plan to fire staff if furlough ends soon: BCC

LONDON: A quarter of British businesses expect to fire staff if finance minister Rishi Sunak does not extend a job furlough programme that is due to expire at the end of April, the British Chambers of Commerce said on Thursday.

Sunak is due to deliver his annual budget on March 3 and has promised to provide more support for jobs hit by the coronavirus pandemic. But he is also mindful that COVID-related spending has already pushed Britain’s budget deficit to its highest since World War Two.

Britain entered a third national lockdown last month, which forced schools and most businesses to close their doors to the public, although staff can continue to work on site if there is no good alternative.

The BCC said 61% of firms had suffered a fall in sales since October, based on a survey of 1,115 of its members carried out between Jan. 18 and Jan. 31.

Businesses that offered services to the public were the most likely to report a drop in revenue, due to the greater impact of the lockdown.

Some 25% said that they would need to make staff redundant if the furlough programme is not extended, and 25% also said they would cut staff hours in that situation.

The furlough programme cost 46 billion pounds ($64 billion) up to mid-December – the government’s most expensive single economic support measure – and last week the Office for National Statistics estimated 18% of private-sector employees were on furlough during the current lockdown.

“It is vital that the UK government keeps financial support going until firms can reopen and rebuild,” BCC Director General Adam Marshall said. “Pulling the plug now would be a huge mistake, and would be akin to writing off the billions already spent helping firms to survive.”

Cashflow was a major worry for businesses, he added. Just under a quarter of businesses said that they only had enough money to keep operating for a further three months.

UK companies hire at record pace as economy reopens

Britain’s unemployment is falling as the nation’s Covid-hit economy reopens — but vacancies are soaring as businesses struggle to recruit sufficient staff, official data showed Thursday.

The unemployment rate dipped to 4.8% in the three months to the end of May, the Office for National Statistics said in a statement. That was down from 5.0% in the three months to February, the ONS added.

Unemployment remains 0.9 percentage points higher than its pre-pandemic level.

But the labour market has picked up since March as a result of the economy’s phased reopening, with England set to fully exit lockdown next Monday.

The ONS added that the number of employees on payrolls soared by a record 356,000 in June.

“As we approach the final stages of reopening the economy, I look forward to seeing more people back at work and the economy continuing to rebound,” said British finance minister Rishi Sunak. “We are bouncing back,” he added.

However, sectors like hospitality have faced difficulty recruiting staff, impacted also by Brexit since the start of the year. Job vacancies jumped to 862,000 between April and June, rising by 77,500 from the first quarter.

The number of vacancies is now above its pre-pandemic level from early 2020, and stands at a three-year peak.

Nothing in data to prevent easing lockdown in the UK: Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday raised the prospect of the UK proceeding with its planned roadmap to end lockdown restrictions from June 21 as he said that there is “nothing in data” to suggest that a delay would be necessary.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street here, he struck a note of caution as there are clear signs the there is a rise in infection rates from the so-called Delta variant of COVID-19 – a highly transmissible mutation first identified in India and behind what some scientists fear may be the early signs of a third wave of the pandemic in the UK.

“I can see nothing in the data at the moment that means we can’t go ahead with step four of the opening on 21 June,” said Johnson.

“But we’ve got to be so cautious because there’s no question the ONS [Office for National Statistics] data of infection rates is showing an increase. We always knew that was going to happen. Don’t forget we always said the unlocking steps that we’ve taken would lead to increases in infection,” he said.

His comments came as the National Health Service (NHS) released latest vaccination figures, which show that half of all adults in England are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and three-quarters have received a first dose.

“What we need to work out is to what extent the vaccination programme has protected enough of us – particularly the elderly and vulnerable – against a new surge. There, I’m afraid, the data is just still ambiguous and so every day we’re having long sessions where we’re interrogating all the data, we’re looking at all the various models,” said Johnson.

“And the best the scientists can say at the moment, in their guidance to us, is that we just need to give it a little bit longer,” he added.

In recent days, the UK Prime Minister has faced growing calls from different sections of experts and scientists to delay a complete end to lockdown restrictions due to the continuing spread of the Delta variant.

On Tuesday, the UK recorded zero deaths from COVID-19 for the first time since last year and triggered calls from members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party to not derail the lockdown roadmap.

June 21 will mark the fourth and final stage of the government’s roadmap for easing coronavirus rules – dubbed “freedom day” as all legal limits on social contact are scheduled to be lifted.

Johnson acknowledged the wait for a clear answer would be “frustrating” for people ahead of stage four of his roadmap, a deadline hospitality venues have been eagerly looking forward to.

On Wednesday, the UK recorded a further 4,330 infections and another 12 coronavirus deaths.

Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at University of Oxford and part of the government’s vaccine taskforce, told the BBC that the UK’s “numbers don’t look too intimidating” and he was “encouraged” by what he saw. However, he said the government was taking “a wise approach” in being cautious ahead of making its decision.

“I do think we need to keep our eye on hospitalisations, serious disease and deaths which is really what we are trying to manage,” he said.

“If we scamper down a rabbit hole every time we see a new variant we are going to spend a long time huddled away so we do need to keep a bit of balance to the discussion and keep our eyes on the serious disease that we are trying to prevent,” he added.

A final decision on whether restrictions will be relaxed will be reached on June 14. AK RUP AKJ RUP RUP