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UK’s finance minister says practical issues with helping self-employed over coronavirus

By Elizabeth Howcroft

LONDON (Reuters) – British finance minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday the government was working on measures to help self-employed people in the wake of the coronavirus crisis but that there were issues with the practicality and fairness of so doing.

Last week Sunak announced billions of pounds of help for businesses and took the historic step of arranging government help to pay the wages of employees, giving grants to cover 80% of a worker’s salary if they were kept on as staff.

But, critics said it did not provide support for the self-employed, who total about 5 million in Britain compared to roughly 28 million employees, meaning they either had to keep working and flout government advice to stay at home, or lose all their wages.

“There are genuine practical and principle reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers,” Sunak said in parliament on Tuesday.

“We need to be confident that that can be done in a way that is deliverable and is fair.”

He said he could not commit to when measures would be announced until officials had gone through the details, saying millions of self-employed people might not have been impacted or even seen their incomes increasing.

“The ability for the government to distinguish between these people, based on tax returns that are over a year and a half out of date, poses some very significant challenges in terms of fairness and affordability,” he told lawmakers.

But, unions said measures urgently needed to be put in place to defense incomes to ensure that restrictions on movement to help contain coronavirus were followed.

“The stark reality is that millions of workers are confused about whether or not they can or should be at work,” said Len McCluskey, general secretary of one of Britain’s largest unions, Unite.

“At the same time, the millions of self-employed and insecure workers across the country will dread being sent home because it means that they will have no wage,” he said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; editing by Michael Holden)