Johnson must protect renters and workers

| 18th March 2020
'There was nothing in the [chancellor's] statement to protect renters.'

People are worried and I'm just disappointed that today's package of measures didn't really appreciate the urgency and the gravity of the situation.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has been urged to do more to support the poorest members of society in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak after allegations the chancellor's £350 billion package did "nothing" to protect home renters and those on low incomes.

Rishi Sunak vowed to do "whatever it takes" to buoy the economy when he announced his "unprecedented" fiscal cannon to MPs on Tuesday, as the number of people thought to have Covid-19 in the UK rose to 55,000 and the official death toll climbed to 71.

Yet his package of measures designed to protect businesses was criticised after it failed to acknowledge financial means of supporting those in rental accommodation and people on low incomes amid concerns over potential job losses.

Families

Johnson will face further scrutiny from MPs during Prime Minister's Questions later on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell called on Mr Sunak to "bring forward measures to protect renters, prevent evictions and enable rent holidays for those people not able to meet their costs", including freezing or suspending utility bill payments.

He added: "There was nothing in the statement to protect renters.

"Today in some of our constituencies, people were being laid off, they were losing their jobs and losing their incomes, and their livelihoods are being threatened.

"People are worried and I'm just disappointed that today's package of measures didn't really appreciate the urgency and the gravity of the situation for those individuals and those families."

Rental

Labour's Jess Phillips also questioned whether the government's statutory sick pay - for those in self-isolation attempting to quell the virus spreading further - was sufficient to live on.

The government has been facing calls to increase the payment level from £94.25 a week - considerably less than many other European nations - and ensure there is support for the two million low-paid workers who are not eligible.

The Birmingham Yardley MP asked the chancellor: "A simple question. Has he lived on that and could he live on that, as that's what most of my constituents are currently having to live on?"

Mr Sunak sidestepped the question and focused on the government's response to helping those in need.

Fellow Labour MP Zarah Sultana further called on the government to suspend home rental payments and ban evictions for those unable to pay.

Stay home

Mr Sunak was also urged to introduce a "coronavirus universal basic income" which would protect self-employed tradesmen and those on zero-hours contracts.

The chancellor replied: "We've already taken steps to strengthen the safety net for the workers ... we're of course looking to do more in the employment support field."

Measures unveiled by Mr Sunak on Tuesday evening included government-backed loans worth £330 billion - equivalent to 15 percent of GDP - to help businesses which need access to cash, and a package of tax cuts and grants worth more than £20 billion.

The package comes after the public was told to avoid all non-essential contact and travel, while the elderly and those with underlying conditions were told they would have to stay home much more.

Vulnerable

In other developments:

- The most senior judge in England and Wales, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, decided no new trial should start in any Crown Court unless it is expected to last for three days or fewer.

- The government announced that emergency coronavirus legislation would give the police powers to arrest and isolate people to protect public health.

- More major sporting events were postponed, including the French Open and the Euro 2020 football tournament.

- The Olivier Awards, which celebrate the theatre industry, have been cancelled while Bafta postponed its annual television and TV craft awards.

- Sainsbury's became the latest supermarket to announce measures to help the elderly and vulnerable as store shelves became severely depleted.

- Hospitals were told to cancel non-urgent surgery and free up beds as they prepare for large numbers of Covid-19 patients.

- Britons were advised against non-essential travel to anywhere in the world as the coronavirus crisis closed borders around the globe.

- Leading homelessness charities called for all those sleeping rough to be recognised as a vulnerable group and be given rapid access to testing and hotel-style self-isolation accommodation.

Death

Mr Johnson will appear before the House of Commons at noon. The government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs on Tuesday it is hoped the death toll can be kept to less than 20,000 as he told of the huge amount of strain the health service will be under from Covid-19.

This Author

Harriet Line is the PA deputy political editor.

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