Chancellor Rishi Sunak was challenged to live on statutory sick pay as calls intensified for his coronavirus £330bn bailout plan to help struggling renters and the low paid.
MPs asked the minister if he could live on the £94.25-a-week sick pay and whether measures to deal with the “economic emergency” sparked by the virus did enough for people on the breadline.
It comes amid fears countless people will lose their jobs and be plunged into poverty as the fast-spreading disease looks set to ravage the UK economy.
On Tuesday, the chancellor said he would do “whatever it takes”, outlining an extraordinary £330bn package of support for businesses and people.
But workers, many of whom are on short-term or zero-hour contracts, and trade unions voiced anger that the low paid had no safety net to fall back on.
Ministers were also hit with a torrent of criticism after Sunak’s bailout offered home-owners a three-month mortgage holiday but nothing to renters. It follows alarming reports some people faced eviction within days.
In other developments in the coronavirus crisis:
- The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed that the UK death toll had hit 71
- Police and immigration officers will get the right to detain and quarantine people who may be infected with coronavirus as part of emergency legislation due to be introduced by the government
- Chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance said 20,000 deaths, while “horrible”, would be a “good outcome” for the UK, based on what experts know so far
Labour’s Jess Phillips asked the chancellor if he has ever lived on sick pay, adding: “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?”
Sunak sidestepped the question and insisted that the government “believes in a strong safety net”.
The minister has said he does not rule out going further as the disease tightens its grip on the UK.
Rachel Reeves, who chairs the powerful Commons business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, also urged Sunak to go further with his bailout.
She said: “If you are off work at the moment on statutory sick pay or self-isolating for public health reasons, if you are laid off because there is no work, if you are self-employed or you are low-paid, there is nothing at all today in the package of measures from the chancellor.
Businesses, the self employed and workers are looking to government to stop a health crisis become an economic one. Income replacement, payment holidays for mortgages/rent/taxes; loan guarantees; compensation for businesses that have ground to a halt should all be available now.
— Rachel Reeves (@RachelReevesMP) March 17, 2020
“The chancellor says that these things are under review. Well, as a matter of urgency could he at least increase statutory sick pay to the level of the national living wage?”
Sunak replied: “We have (put) a billion pounds into the welfare system to provide extra financial security for those people to speed up both access and the generosity of all of those benefits.”
Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck told the chancellor the support package does not help small businesses, the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts. She said: “They struggle with high rent and high bills.
“My friends have lost their jobs today. Today the grafters should have been a priority. When will they be?”
The SNP’s Alison Thewliss called on Sunak to ask people with buy-to-let mortgages to pass on the benefits of the three-month mortgage holiday.
She said: “If the chancellor’s going to give a break to those paying mortgages, lots of those will be buy-to-rent mortgages where people will be renting accommodation, and if the mortgage holders are getting a break, that must be guaranteed for the renters as well.”
There would be specific help for renters, to be brought forward by housing secretary Robert Jenrick “in the coming days”, Sunak insisted, but he was repeatedly told action was needed now.
He said: “The biggest fixed costs that many families face will be their rent payment and it is right that we have regard to that.”
General secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady called for a national task force, with trade unions given a seat at the table.
She said: “The chancellor is right to provide this emergency support for business. But it must be conditional on employers protecting jobs and livelihoods, as is the case in countries like Sweden and Denmark.
“This can’t be just a bailout for boardrooms – it has to be about putting money in workers’ pockets too.”
Sunak also told the Commons that environment secretary George Eustice is in “urgent talks” with supermarkets about ensuring food security.
Tory former minister Harriet Baldwin had asked if supermarkets could be supported in boosting home deliveries.
Sunak said Eustice was in “urgent talks with supermarkets to ensure the security of our food supply and to improve accessibility particularly for those who may now be at home”.