Chancellor warns of lockdown ‘economic damage’ when pressed over circuit-breaker

Rishi Sunak has failed to rule out harsher restrictions to control Covid-19, despite warning of the “economic damage” caused by lockdowns.

Labour pressed the Chancellor about a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown, given Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “I rule out nothing” when asked if such a move is likely or not, to combat the virus.

Speaking in the Commons, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds asked: “Does the Chancellor rule it out, yes or no?”

Mr Sunak replied: “Of course, I agree with the Prime Minister.”

Anneliese Dodds
Anneliese Dodds

Ms Dodds warned that not undertaking a circuit-breaker now “could cost our economy £150 million” and asked the Chancellor if he had estimated the costs of not implementing harsher restrictions nationally.

Mr Sunak said: “The honourable lady talks about a rolling programme. It’s very clear that the party opposite thinks we should have a rolling programme of national lockdowns.

“What I can tell her is that would be enormously damaging for people’s jobs and livelihoods, causing unnecessary pain and suffering in parts of the country where the virus prevalence is low.

“Localised approach is the best approach.”

Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck earlier warned: “Repeated local lockdowns with no end in sight is killing our economy in South Shields.

“In the last lockdown we received £26 million of support. I’ve been advised the financial package offered to us this time, should we end up in Tier 3, will be just over £1 million.

“Can he confirm or deny this insulting amount?”

Mr Sunak replied: “I’m glad (Ms Lewell-Buck) recognises the economic damage that lockdowns do, which is why when we had this debate last week I did pose the question as to why (Labour) was suggesting a national lockdown with no end in sight, without commenting on the damage it’d do to people’s jobs and livelihoods.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak
Chancellor Rishi Sunak

Mr Sunak said a national funding formula provides a per capita amount to local authorities of up to £8 per head in the highest tier to support enforcement, compliance and track and trace.

Further support is also offered to businesses and workers, Mr Sunak said.

The Chancellor was later told his employment support schemes “have more holes than a Swiss cheese”.

Shadow Treasury minister Bridget Phillipson said: “In March the Chancellor was clear that if people couldn’t earn a living by going out to work it was the Government’s job to step in, whatever it takes.

“By July he was moving away from that belief and today he has moved so far that his employment support schemes have more holes than a Swiss cheese.

“Can he tell the House, was he wrong in March or is he wrong now?”

Mr Sunak replied: “I did say we would do what it takes and I think £200 billion later and almost nine million jobs protected is evidence that we have done and we will continue to do what it takes to protect this economy and people’s livelihoods.”

Zarah Sultana
Zarah Sultana

Labour MP Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) also pressed Mr Sunak on whether he could live on two-thirds of the minimum wage.

She said: “Is he happy to see 1.8 million jobs go? And could he live on two-thirds of the minimum wage? If not, he should extend the furlough scheme now for the industries that desperately need it.”

Mr Sunak responded: “When we announced the jobs support scheme, it was in fact warmly welcomed by several business groups and indeed the trade union who I was happy to work with in designing the scheme.

“I’d say to (Ms Sultana) I take the issue of jobs very seriously, it remains my highest priority, and whilst I cannot protect every single job, we will throw absolutely everything that we can at protecting and saving and creating as many jobs as possible, which is why we have a comprehensive plan for jobs.”

Tory former minister Caroline Nokes urged Mr Sunak not to “balance the books” and to provide more support to businesses in Tier 1 which are still unable to open.