Coronavirus: Business cheers furlough extension but 'devil is in detail'

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn: 'The Chancellor is confronting a challenging balancing act deftly.' (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

Business groups have greeted an extension to the government’s furlough scheme but called for more clarity on changes due to take place from July.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Tuesday announced that the government’s job retention scheme would be extended until October. The scheme, which had been due to end in June, sees the state pay up to 80% of furloughed staffs’ wages to a maximum of £2,500 per month.

The scheme aims to avoid widespread layoffs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Some 6.8 million people have been placed on furlough under the scheme since its launch, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £8bn ($9.8bn).

Business groups had been lobbying for an extension and roundly cheered Wednesday’s announcement.

“The extension of the Job Retention Scheme will come as a huge help and a huge relief for businesses across the UK,” said Dr Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC).

Read more: Pressure growing on government to extend furlough scheme

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “The chancellor is confronting a challenging balancing act deftly.”

UK prime minister Boris Johnson made clear on Sunday night that much of the UK would stay locked down until July and Fairbairn said the furlough extension would “protect millions of jobs” by “avoid[ing] a June cliff-edge”.

As well as extending the scheme, the chancellor said rules would be loosened to allow staff to begin to take part-time work while still on furlough.

Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the change would give companies vital “breathing space” as the economy reopens.

Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said the changes would “protect thousands of livelihoods over the months ahead”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak makes a statement in the House of Commons on the government's economic package in response to the coronavirus outbreak. (PA)

However, Sunak also said employers would be asked to provide more support to the scheme from July. He promised further details later this month.

“Firms will, of course, want more detail on how they will contribute to the scheme in the future and will work with government to get this right,” Fairbairn said.

Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "We now need further clarity around employers' contributions. Many firms that would normally be on strong footing are still in dire straits.”

Read more: UK furlough scheme extended to October with part-time work allowed

Mel Stride MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said Wednesday’s announcement was “welcome” but the “devil though will be in the detail.”

“The Treasury Committee looks forward to carefully scrutinising these changes,” Stride said.

Business groups urged the chancellor to continue to be nimble and flexible when it came to offering state support.

“There is no silver bullet to any of this and both government and industry are going to have to be adaptive, creative and flexible through what is likely to be a bumpy and turbulent flight into the future from now on,” said Stephen Phipson, chief executive of manufacturers union Make UK.