In Brief

Self-employed call for coronavirus help

Chancellor facing mounting pressure to extend wage bailout to cover five million UK freelancers

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing mounting pressure to extend his coronavirus wage bailout scheme to the UK’s five million self-employed workers.

The calls come amid fears that many will be left financially stranded by the outbreak and forced to keep working even if they have symptoms.

On Friday, Rishi Sunak announced the government would step in and pay 80% of salaries for staff kept on by employers, up to a limit of £2,500 a month.

However, this does not extend to freelancers, contractors and sole traders who will only be entitled to £94.25 a week in universal credit.

Treasury minister Stephen Barclay has said the self-employed will be helped through additional measures such as the deferral of self-assessment tax requirements, payment holidays for mortgage payers and the strengthening of the welfare “safety net”.

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However, former Brexit Secretary David Davis has warned the economy faces a “fatal seizure” if the self-employed are left financially stranded, with The Sun reporting that “trades including bricklayers, plumbers and creative industries will be struck by immense hardship if no urgent action is taken”.

“It is great for those who have got jobs but it does miss out a pretty important sector of the economy – namely the self-employed – and [Sunak] is going to have to find a way of replicating this for the self-employed as well”, Davis told the BBC.

The Guardian says the chancellor “is being lobbied to go further in coming days or risk public health by incentivising self-employed taxi drivers, couriers and other gig economy workers and zero-hours contractors to keep working while ill”.

According to a Populus survey for the Royal Society of Arts carried out last week, 47% of the self-employed and 51% of people in “atypical” work - such as those on zero-hours contracts - would feel obliged to work even if they had the virus.

TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the union movement would now be “pushing really hard” for freelancers. 

The Sunday Telegraph reports that the chancellor is “being lobbied to mirror the approach of Norway”, where the government has said that it will pay self-employed workers grants equating to 80% of their average income over the past three years.

A big problem for the government is that Britain’s self-employed, who account for 15% of the workforce, “are a disparate group” says the Financial Times.

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that about a third had taxable income of less than £10,000, while a small number of high-earning partners in professional firms rank among the UK’s top 1% by income.

Because of this “extending Sunak’s retention scheme to self-employed workers would be logistically difficult”, the FT reports. “It could be easier to relax the rules on means-testing under universal credit, or to make contributory benefits that might be open to some self-employment people more generous,” the paper adds.

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