The former business secretary Andrea Leadsom has said some people are reluctant to return to work because furlough has been “great” for them while others were “terrified” of going back to the office, sparking criticism from workers and business owners.
The Conservative MP said some businesses in her South Northamptonshire constituency were struggling to get employees to go back to work because “people have, to be perfectly frank, become used to being on furlough”.
Leadsom told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions: “For some people they’re just terrified, so it’s like: ‘I’ve been on furlough for so long, I really can’t quite face going back to the office’ and employers are rightly saying: ‘Well, you need to.’
“So there’s that issue, the mental health issue, the fear of it. For other people, it’s like: ‘Well actually being on furlough in lockdown has been great for me – I’ve got a garden, I’ve been able to go out walking every day, I’ve got great vegetables growing. I don’t really want to go back to work, maybe I’ll think about part-time or I’m going to retire early.’
“If we can’t get our economy to bounce back then we can’t start to pay this huge bill that we’ve already incurred for this lockdown, and that’s critical at this point.”
Leadsom’s remarks sparked mixed reactions. One person wrote on Twitter: “I was on furlough for three months last year. It affected me deeply. I felt rejected. Let’s not assume how people feel about furlough.”
Another wrote: “I think Andrea Leadsom doesn’t understand how furlough works, she’s also confusing it with working from home. I know a few people who have been furloughed, it left them in a state of anxiety, questioning if they have a job to come back to.”
The government’s furlough scheme was introduced in March last year and subsidises 80% of workers’ wages in businesses affected by the pandemic. Some employers topped up the difference. The scheme will begin to taper off from the end of June, when the state’s subsidy will shrink to 70% of wages before being phased out completely in September.
Ben Morgan, from Sheffield, who owns a company that supplies crews for live music shows, has had all his employees, 90 in total, on furlough since the first lockdown last year.
As much as Morgan is grateful for the scheme, he fears it might not be enough to keep his company – which had an annual turnover of about £800,000 a year before the pandemic – in business. He is trying to secure another loan to tide him over until restrictions for his sector end, which willbe on 19 July at the earliest.
“I don’t think Andrea has much of a grip on what workers really want. We surveyed all of our workers who are on furlough about availability when we can work again, and the overwhelming majority are ready to go back to work, in fact desperate to get back to work.
“If I get this loan, I can hold on until 1 September. If by then the restrictions aren’t lifted, I’ll be done. I’ll declare bankruptcy and wind up the business I founded 23 years ago, and the £450,000 that we received through a bounce-back loan and the furlough scheme will have been wasted.
“We were hoping to do a couple of festivals in July that would have funded the 10% furlough contribution we have to make.
“Well, that is now out of the window, so we have to fund the 10% from the magic money tree that we don’t have. We then have to fund the 20% in August as well.
“I would love for Rishi [Sunak] to explain where I should be finding this £15,000 from, for the second time, as we had to do this when furlough was extended last year, at the last minute, which cost many people their jobs.
“And the Tories say they’re the party of business.”