The Government has spent billions supporting businesses through coronavirus. But as many as three million workers have fallen through the gaps, and some business are not being allowed to reopen even as support starts to wind down.
In the second of a three-part series looking at companies and individuals being failed by coronavirus rescue measures, three women tell how they were left without income or support when the pandemic struck.
Delayed from starting new job
Kate Benjamin left her job at Selfridges on March 13 with almost two weeks of breathing space on the horizon before starting a new job as a project manager.
But her start date in late March coincided with the beginning of national lockdown, and those few weeks off morphed into months of no work and financial worry.
With her start date at her new job delayed as her new employer grappled with the hit from the pandemic, the 30-year-old from Streatham in south London found herself between employers and unable to access the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for workers put on furlough by employers during lockdown.
She had to turn to Universal Credit to get £380 a month to help pay her mortgage and other bills, well below what she could have expected from the CJRS, which subsidises 80pc of wages up to £2,500 a month.
“I definitely felt it was unfair and frustrating,” she recalls. “And I felt a lot of anger towards the Government as they know about this happening [all over the country] and just didn’t do anything.”
Percentage of employees on furlough around the country
Benjamin is among the millions of workers who have fallen through the gaps of the extra support the Government has put in place for people whose livelihoods have been harmed by the pandemic.
By landing just the wrong side of cut-off dates or income thresholds, or with unwilling employers, they have been denied access to the billions of pounds of taxpayer money being relied on by their peers.
The campaign group Excluded UK reckons there are as many as three million workers – 10pc of the workforce – who have been left out, leading to “unfairness, injustice, discrimination, and severe hardship”.
They are calling on the Government to close gaps, even as the furlough scheme is set to wind down in October. The Treasury Select Committee also intervened in July, asking the Government to “urgently help those who have fallen through the gaps,” adding: “It cannot just turn its back on those who are suffering.”
Working parent, made redundant
Chartered surveyor Helen McKeown, who needed to shield her six-year-old son due to his lung condition, says she was let go from her relatively new job rather than being put on furlough or allowed to work from home.
“The mental strain of trying to deal with the redundancy process and home-school two young children when we could not leave the house – it was this horrible situation brought on by Covid,” says the 40-year-old from Greater Manchester.
“When Rishi Sunak [the chancellor] told people, ‘you will not be left behind’, I thought it was going to be OK. But I have been left between a rock and a hard place. We have been selling private possessions – anything that isn’t tied down – toys, furniture, selling a car.”
With her son now off the shielding list and back at school, she is looking for a new job in a hugely competitive market, but will struggle to pay a childminder for her youngest son. “It’s like we are being sent back to the 1950s,” she says.
Both she and Benjamin hope the Government will offer backdated financial support to people in her position, putting them on an equal footing with those who have been able to access state support.
“I have paid tax – I have been working since my first job in 2001 and I am a high-rate taxpayer,” says McKeown.
Made redundant before furlough scheme launched
Reshma Roodurmun is fighting a similar battle. The 42-year-old was made redundant in late February, a few weeks before the furlough scheme came into effect.
As a limited company director, her husband has also struggled to access support, and has qualified only for more debt.
“I think they need to close the gap between fairness and unfairness,” she says. “I am not asking for an endless pot of money.
“For those on furlough, yes that uncertainty is there but a lot of people were able to upskill, putting them in a better position. I was panicking about how to get food on the table, keep a roof over my head.”
Responding further in August to the concerns raised by MPs on the Treasury Committee among others, the Government said it felt “under a strong obligation to prioritise help for the greatest number of people as quickly as possible”.
It said that extending the cut-off date for the furlough scheme would increase the risk of fraud, as the scheme was made public at this time. The scheme had already supported “millions of people to remain employed”, it adds.
For those left out, however, that comes as little comfort.
A Treasury spokesman said: “We have kept over 9.6 million people in work and helped businesses across the UK get through the outbreak - acting quickly to deliver one of the most generous and comprehensive packages of support in the world worth an initial £160 billion.
"We’ve also invested more than £9bn to strengthen our welfare safety net to ensure it’s more generous and accessible for those who need it and people have also benefitted from tax deferrals and mortgage holidays.
“But it is clearly for businesses to decide whether or not to access our schemes based on their individual circumstances."
Read more in our series on the workers and businesses left behind by the government’s pandemic response: