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This Man Will Decide the Fate of Millions of U.K. Jobs Next Week


Rishi Sunak faces one of the toughest decisions of his four months as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the livelihoods of millions dependent on his next move.


After taking the unprecedented decision to pay 80% of the wages of more than 8 million workers as the coronavirus swept through the U.K. in March, he has promised to set out next week how he will start to scale back the program.



It will be the biggest test of how hard the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker will find it to turn off the spending spigot after committing unprecedented sums to prop up the U.K. economy, burnishing his own political reputation.


Now he has to balance the strain his policies are putting on the public finances -- the furlough program alone could cost as much as 84 billion pounds ($102 billion) -- with the risk that if he ends them too soon, he could trigger a wave of mass unemployment unseen since the 1930s.


“Given the huge effort and cost that went into putting the furlough system in place, it’s got to be unwound sensitively, or we risk a significant downside,” said Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.


Both the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility expect the unemployment to jump to about 10% from 3.9% now. That implies roughly 3.4 million people will soon be out of work, a figure not seen since the Great Depression.


Sunak, 40, has himself admitted he can’t save every job and has warned the country faces a severe recession on a scale “the likes of which we haven’t seen.”


So far, the Chancellor’s focus has been on saving jobs by splashing unprecedented levels of cash. By guaranteeing workers up to 2,500 pounds of income each month, he not only sought to protect the link between people and their jobs, but also to protect their pattern of consumption in the hope that their spending, and thus the wider economy, bounces back quickly after a brief disruption.


But the virus has lingered, and the cost of the government’s extraordinary support is rising fast. On Friday, British mortgage borrowers were told they will be allowed to skip payments for three more months. In all, the U.K.’s crisis measures will cost 123 billion pounds this fiscal year, the OBR says.


While Sunak’s job is eased by the Bank of England’s bond-buying plan and historically low interest rates, the damage to the public finances is mounting.


Even if the virus has passed its peak, the lockdown remains largely in place.



On May 12, Sunak extended the jobs program by an extra four months to the end of October, promising that furloughed workers will still receive the same level of support. From August, companies will have to shoulder more of the cost.


Ministers are exploring making firms pay national insurance and staff pension costs that the government has taken on in addition to the wages, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Other proposals include getting employers to pay 20% of wages with government shouldering 60%, or even asking businesses to meet half the furlough payments. Another possibility is to reduce the government’s contribution through August, September and October.


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