LONDON (Reuters) - Britain extended its job retention scheme - the centrepiece of its attempts to cushion the coronavirus hit to the economy - by four months on Tuesday but told employers they would have to help meet its huge cost from August.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak said 7.5 million temporarily laid off employees, almost one in every four British workers, were now on the scheme.
He said they could rest assured that they would continue to get 80% of their wages up to 2,500 pounds ($3,089) a month until the end of October.
But Sunak said the scheme was expensive and could not continue indefinitely.
“We have stretched and strained to be as generous as possible to businesses and workers,” he told parliament.
“This scheme is expensive. It is the right thing to do - the cost of not acting would have been far higher - but it is not something that can continue indefinitely into the future.”
The programme is designed to stop an expected sharp rise in unemployment from turning into the kind of surge seen in the United States.
But at about 8 billion pounds a month, its cost is around two-thirds of what Britain spends on public health services.
Sunak said that from August, employers currently using the scheme would be allowed to bring furloughed employees back part-time, something business groups had been calling for, to allow them to slowly get back up to speed.
But he also told companies they would have to start sharing the cost of the scheme from August although the government would still take on “the lion’s share” of the cost.
The United Kingdom is racking up new debt at a furious pace: it is due to issue 180 billion pounds of government debt between May and July, more than previously planned for the entire financial year.
Its debt mountain exceeds $2.5 trillion and its public sector net borrowing could reach 14% of gross domestic product this year, the biggest single-year deficit since World War Two.
An employers’ group welcomed the inclusion of part-time working in the furlough scheme but said it needed more information on how businesses, many of which are shuttered under the government’s coronavirus lockdown, will have to pay.
“Many firms that would normally be on a strong footing are still in dire straits,” said Edwin Morgan, director of policy at the Institute of Directors.
Sunak said he would give further details by the end of May.
An economic think-tank said extending the furlough scheme would prevent companies from readjusting to the changed economy, potentially causing a rise in joblessness after the lockdown.
“It would have been better to spell out much more clearly what the government intends now, rather than delaying the detail,” said Len Shackleton, a research fellow at the Institute for Economic Affairs.
But a group representing manufacturers said the extension meant jobs had been saved.
Steve Morley, president of the Confederation of British Metalforming, said a recent survey of the group’s roughly 200 member firms showed they feared having to lay off up to 30% of their workforce if the support were taken away.
Britain’s finance ministry also said on Tuesday that its new, 100% state-backed loan programme had met with strong demand from small companies, with 268,000 Bounce Back Loans worth 8.3 billion issued since its launch on May 4.
It said 36,000 loans worth over 6 billion pounds had been made through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, which carries 80% state guarantees and has made slow progress since it was announced in March.
Additonal reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Stephen Addison and Catherine Evans