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Continued economic support essential as furlough scheme ends

PARALLEL with the coronavirus's public health implications have been its enormous economic impact.

The two cannot be separated. Lockdown was a sudden, if necessary, shock not only to everyone's way of life but also to every aspect of the economy.

These exceptional circumstances required an exceptional response from government.

Chief among these was Chancellor Rishi Sunak's furlough scheme, an unprecedented £35 billion intervention which saw the government pay 80 per cent of millions of workers' wages, including at one point more than 200,000 in Northern Ireland.

The scheme is being phased out and will end next month, leading to fears of a spike in unemployment.

The Stormont executive, which has only limited fiscal powers of its own, had urged Mr Sunak to extend the furlough scheme in Northern Ireland, but that plea has been rejected.

Instead, Mr Sunak has said the government will continue to top up the wages of some workers in "viable jobs" for six months from November 1 through a new Job Support Scheme.

This falls considerably short of the furlough scheme - the Treasury's contribution is capped at £698 a month.

Mr Sunak has argued that the furlough scheme's £2,500 a month is unsustainable and that he "can't save every job".

Support for self-employed people is similarly being reduced.

The situation would be unpromising enough even if the economy were able to reopen fully and businesses able to trade as they could over six months ago.

However, as the series of tighter restrictions introduced this month in response to rising coronavirus cases emphasises, we remain in far from ideal trading conditions.

Uncertainty over what regulations and guidance applies in certain contexts is complicated enough for the public to manage, let alone for businesses trying to operate amid constantly shifting regulations.

To take but one example, the executive last week told restaurants and pubs that up to six people from any number of households would be allowed to sit together at a table.

But when the relevant legislation was published this week, it said that no more than six people from two households can sit at the same table.

Meanwhile, the executive has announced a much-needed £165 million package of financial support, targeted at sectors including - at last - the arts, which receives £29 million.

Such measures will be increasingly vital in coming weeks as a fuller picture of the predicted unemployment earthquake emerges.

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