Boris Johnson vows to ‘put arms around every single worker’ with help for self-employed ‘in days’
Boris Johnson said the Government would put its “arms around every single worker” during the coronavirus crisis as he promised to unveil help for the self-employed “in the next couple of days”.
The Prime Minister told MPs his administration had already taken “extraordinary steps” to try and shield workers from the impact of the shutdown of ordinary life as the country battles to contain the spread of coronavirus.
And Number 10 confirmed fresh help for self-employed workers would be unveiled on Thursday after criticism they have been left out of an economic rescue package.
Ministers are under increasing pressure to protect Britain’s five million-strong army of contractors and freelance workers from what analysts predict will be a steep recession prompted by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week unveiled plans to underwrite up to 80% of the wages of employees in firms affected by the crisis, in exchange for them keeping workers on their books rather than resorting to lay-offs.
Speaking at a sparsely-attended Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: "As a society, and as a country, we are doing quite an extraordinary thing, which is for the first time in our history, to get through this crisis, we are putting our arms as a country, around every single worker, every single employee in this country.”
He told Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn: “It is a quite unprecedented step and... I know there are concerns about the self-employed, but he will be hearing more in the next couple of days from the Chancellor."
Downing Street later said measures to help the self-employed would be unveiled on Thursday, with Mr Sunak again appearing alongside Mr Johnson at a joint press conference.
And the PM added: "We will get this country through this crisis with these exceptional steps, and I can tell him, we will do absolutely everything that it takes.
"We will do whatever it takes to get our country through it together."
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said self-employed workers were “deeply concerned about the jobs and the families they support” amid predictions from the Resolution Foundation think tank that 1.7 million could find themselves out of work entirely.
And he said of Mr Johnson’s vow: “These are the same promises that have now been made for weeks. And yet, we and they are waiting.
"Can the Prime Minister explain why the package for the self-employed was not put in place before we announced the lockdown?"
The PM said the Government had “done a huge amount already to strengthen the safety net for everyone in this country”, including increasing welfare payments through the Universal Credit system by £1,000 a year.
He added: "We are deferring VAT until the next quarter as he knows. There is access to government financed loans, but there are particular complexities about the self-employed which do need to be addressed.
“They are not all in the same position and all I can say is that we are working as fast as we possibly can to get the appropriate package of support for everyone in this country, and that is what we are going to do."
And Mr Corbyn - making his final PMQs appearance as Labour leader in an extended session - said MPs were hearing from constituents who were already being “threatened with eviction now because they are in rent arrears” through coronavirus-related lay-offs.
The Prime Minister’s pledge to help the self-employed came as he hinted at fresh action to clamp down on people seeking to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis by ramping up the price of goods as supermarkets battle to keep food on the shelves.
Asked by Conservative MP Alex Stafford whether the Government would act to “stamp out the disgusting scourge of blackmarket profiteering”, Mr Johnson said: “Yes indeed.
"I think the profiteering is something we should be looking at from a legislative point of view in this House as has happened before in this country.”
The PM urged Brits not to stockpile goods, saying supermarkets had “adequate supplies” and that it was “very important that everybody acts reasonably and considerately for other people”.