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Thu, 3 December 2020

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The Breakfast Briefing: Rishi Sunak’s next move on furloughing, Boris Johnson’s baby steps - and another Tory BBC row

The Breakfast Briefing: Rishi Sunak’s next move on furloughing, Boris Johnson’s baby steps - and another Tory BBC row

The Chancellor faces a big decision on the coronavirus job retention scheme.

4 min read

Your essential guide to what’s moving in Westminster this morning from the PoliticsHome team

“It is coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous,” Boris Johnson has said - and nowhere is that more apparent than in Rishi Sunak’s bid to pare back the coronavirus job retention scheme.

More than six million workers and 800,000 employers are currently making use of the furloughing programme - but the Chancellor has warned that the eye-watering cost of the state paying 80% of the wages for millions of workers is simply “not sustainable”.
 
Today we will learn just what Sunak, who has so far only taken decisions likely to be very popular with the public in the short-term, will do next.

There is a widespread expectation that the scheme will be extended to September - but the wage subsidy looks set to be significantly pared back to 60%, while firms will be encouraged to bring furloughed staff back on part-time hours.
 
The tweaks come amid a wider push from the Government to get some semblance of normality going again - although yesterday’s whirlwind of messages only seemed to confuse matters.

The PM’s evening press conference felt like his toughest outing yet, with an eyebrow-raising answer in which he told one member of the public concerned about going back to work that he was "sure employers will agree" a lack of childcare is a decent reason not to go in. As anyone who’s ever been in a normal job knows, that’s not how these things usually work.
 
It is of course, much easier to get a scripted, pre-recorded message right, but Labour’s Keir Starmer won’t have done himself any harm with his own BBC broadcast to the nation, helpfully lined up just ahead of the Number 10 briefing.

But Conservative MP Dehenna Davison is not thrilled with the Beeb for giving Starmer the airtime, saying the broadcaster has “big questions to answer” over allowing a “party political” statement on the airwaves. The daily press conferences trumpeting the Government’s many and varied achievements have, of course, been highly neutral.

While the PM made clear the country is taking “baby steps” back to work, then, there was at least one giant leap forward last night as sceptical trade unions came on board with the Government’s new ‘Covid Secure’ guidance aimed at making workplaces safe.
 
Days of wrangling between Whitehall, industry and unions meant TUC chief Frances O’Grady felt able to call the batch of new documents "a step in the right direction” - which, when we’re talking about unions dealing with a Conservative administration, is about as fulsome as the praise gets.

Crucially, the Government has accepted that firms will need to carry out a “Covid-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions” to work out what measures to put in place, and there’s extra cash for the Health and Safety Executive to help it clamp down on non-compliance.
 
Alok Sharma will give a Commons statement on the back-to-work safety plans this afternoon, and we’re also getting an update from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on how “transport users and operators” can stay as safe as possible.

Expect details on spaced-out platforms, hand sanitisers galore, and one-way ticket barriers when Shapps gets to his feet later. And I’d keep an eye on a written statement from Sunak too, promising an “economy update”.
 
Spoiler alert: it probably won’t be good news.

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