Chancellor Unveils Winter Economy Plan
Rishi Sunak has unveiled a winter economic plan aimed at protecting employment in the wake of the latest coronavirus restrictions. Announced by the chancellor in the Commons on Thursday, the plan includes a new job support scheme designed to top up the wages of employees who have their hours reduced by struggling firms. To be eligible, staff must work a third of their usual hours, paid for by their employer. For the hours they are not working, the government will contribute a third of their usual pay, on top of a further third contributed by their employer – meaning workers ultimately receive 77% of their usual wages. Starting in November, the six-month scheme mimics the German government’s Kurzarbeit programme and will replace the support offered by the jobs retention scheme, which closes in October.
In addition to jobs support, Sunak has announced a “pay as you grow” extension to the government’s business loan scheme. The decision means firms can extend their loans from six to ten years, almost halving repayments. Companies can also make interest-only payments, and those facing severe financial problems can suspend their repayments. The chancellor has also postponed a planned increase in VAT for the hospitality and leisure industries. The tax had been due to increase from 5% to 20% in January but the rise has now been delayed until March. While business groups such as the CBI have welcomed the package, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned many workers currently furloughed remain likely to lose their jobs.
NHS LAUNCHES CONTACT TRACING APP
The long-awaited coronavirus contact tracing app launched in England and Wales on Thursday. The app uses Google and Apple technology and is available to smartphone users over the age of 16. It can be used to trace contacts, check local levels of risk, and record visits to venues such as pubs or restaurants. It will instruct users to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects that they have been in contact with someone who has contracted the virus. Health secretary Matt Hancock has urged people to download the app to help make the country “a safer place”. “The more people who download it, the more effective it will be,” he added.
After originally being due to launch in May, the app has already received hundreds of thousands of downloads since becoming available for download on Thursday. As it is limited to phones that still receive software updates, users of older devices – such as iPhone 6 models or older – will be unable to access it. However, ministers believe there are enough people with newer phones for the app to prove useful. The launch comes as cases continue to rise across the UK, with 6,634 people testing positive on Thursday – the highest daily total ever recorded.
Donald Trump defends his bid to appoint a new Supreme Court justice before the presidential election on 3rd November, arguing that he expects the poll results to end up before the court. The US president’s comments follow his repeated attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting systems in US states. “I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots,” Trump said on Wednesday. Trump’s frequent claims of a “rigged” election have led some commentators to question whether he could challenge the ballot’s results in the event he loses.
When asked by a reporter on Wednesday whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power “win, lose or draw” in November, Trump again criticised mail-in voting, saying: “Get rid of the ballots, and you'll have a very – you'll have a very peaceful – there won't be a transfer, frankly, there'll be a continuation.” Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power has been dismissed by his Democratic challenger. “The United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House,” Joe Biden’s team said on Thursday.
In other news
STUDENTS COULD FACE FESTIVE LOCKDOWN
The health secretary has refused to rule out a potential student lockdown at Christmas to limit Covid-19 transmission. Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about whether students could be banned from returning home at Christmas, Matt Hancock said: “I've learned not to rule things out”. However, the health secretary made clear that a situation in which students were advised to stay in their university towns over Christmas “is not our goal” adding: “I very much hope we can avoid it”. His comments come amid a growing number of reported outbreaks in university accommodation, with hundreds of students at universities in Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Liverpool told to isolate in their halls of residence.
HUNDREDS OF CAMPS BUILT IN XINJIANG
Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has revealed China has constructed nearly 400 internment camps in the Xinjiang region since 2017. The thinktank used satellite imaging and survivor testimony to map the camps, identifying 385 detention centres built across the region over the past two years. The camps, which are used to detain Uighurs and people from other Muslim minorities, range from so-called re-education camps to high-security prisons. The report said many are also located next to industrial parks, highlighting a “direct pipeline between arbitrary detention in Xinjiang and forced labour”. Beijing has insisted there have been no human rights abuses in Xinjiang and claims the camps are sites for vocational training and education.
LUKASHENKO NOT LEGITIMATE, SAYS EU
Alexander Lukashenko is not the legitimate president of Belarus, the European Union has said. Lukashenko’s disputed re-election in August has led to weeks of protests in the country. On Wednesday, the autocratic leader was abruptly sworn-in as president for a further term. The ceremony in Minsk pushed forward the EU’s plans to boycott Lukashenko. In a statement on Thursday, the bloc declared: “The so-called ‘inauguration’… and the new mandate claimed by Alexander Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy.” The EU said it would be “reviewing its relations” with Belarus – meaning it is likely to cut off funding to Lukashenko’s regime and instead channel it directly to aid groups and healthcare.
FLU JABS FACE 'UNPRECEDENTED DEMAND'
Boots has been forced to suspend its bookings for the flu jab in the face of “unprecedented demand”. It follows warnings from health officials urging eligible people to get the vaccine to avoid the “double danger” posed by flu and Covid-19. Those aged over 65, people with certain health conditions, and pregnant women can all receive the jab for free. It is also available as a paid-for vaccination at pharmacies. A statement from Boots said it had paused bookings “due to unprecedented demand… and stock availability”. Health secretary Matt Hancock has insisted there are 30m doses available and said the clear demand for the jab is a “very good thing”.
ISRAELI PM DENIES DIRTY LAUNDRY CLAIMS
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara have been known to bring suitcases of dirty clothes on state trips to take advantage of free laundry services, according to the Washington Post. A report in the US newspaper said the Netanyahus had frequently exploited free dry cleaning at the White House. It quoted one official as saying: “[They] bring actual suitcases of dirty laundry for us to clean. After multiple trips, it became clear this was intentional.” While Netanyahu’s office has denied the allegations, it is not the first time the couple have been accused of exploiting high office: the prime minister is currently on trial in three corruption cases and his wife has previously been convicted of misusing public funds to pay for lavish meals.
Data from Strava has shown active travel is booming in Britain as commuters, schoolchildren and shoppers take to their bikes to avoid public transport. The fitness tracker app said Liverpool had seen the biggest year-on-year rising in cycling – with an increase of 220% for people making at least one journey by bike – followed by Manchester and Glasgow. Strava spokesman Gareth Nettleton said the app was desperate “for this not to be a Covid blip” and had made its data freely available to local authorities to help them plan improvements to cycling infrastructure.