UK's Sunak stumps up more help for COVID-hit businesses

Credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

British finance minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday was forced to offer more financial help to businesses grappling with a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which looks increasingly likely to derail the economic recovery.

By David Milliken and William James

LONDON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - British finance minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday was forced to offer more financial help to businesses grappling with a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which looks increasingly likely to derail the economic recovery.

Sunak told parliament the government will shoulder more of the burden for paying employees' wages for businesses that are still open but experiencing difficulty, and offer more money to hospitality companies.

The move marks a turnaround for Sunak after he long resisted calls to extend the generosity of government support schemes. Opponents have said it was obvious that more help was needed and that it should have come sooner.

Britain - the worst-hit European nation during the COVID-19 pandemic with more than 44,000 related deaths - is now seeing a second wave of the virus, recording 26,688 new cases and 191 deaths on Wednesday.

"I've always said that we must be ready to adapt our financial support as the situation evolves, and that is what we are doing today. These changes mean that our support will reach many more people and protect many more jobs," Sunak said.

Some sectors are now in dire straits. An official survey published earlier on Thursday showed more than a third of hospitality companies are at risk of going bust.

Sunak said he would offer a new grant to hospitality businesses worth 2,100 pounds per month that can be claimed retrospectively to August.

He also tweaked the Job Support Scheme designed to dissuade businesses from making people redundant and instead keep workers on reduced hours.

Businesses will now have to pay 5% of the cost of wages for unworked hours, compared with 33% previously.

Following criticism that the government had done too little to help self-employed people, Sunak said he would double the next grants for the self-employed to 20% to 40% of their previous incomes.

"I hope the government's stepped-up support can be part of the country pulling together in the coming months," Sunak said.

(Writing by Andy Bruce; editing by Sarah Young)

((david.milliken@reuters.com; +44 20 7542 5109; Reuters Messaging: david.milliken.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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