Coronavirus: Help for self-employed workers to be unveiled on Thursday

25 March 2020, 14:56 | Updated: 25 March 2020, 18:01

A package of measures to help self-employed workers during the coronavirus lockdown will be unveiled by the chancellor on Thursday.

Rishi Sunak will outline the assistance at the government's daily COVID-19 press conference.

Measures have already been announced to help businesses, mortgage holders, renters and workers. But a lack of a specific package for the self-employed has drawn criticism.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs in the Commons earlier that the government would do "whatever we can" to support the self-employed amid the coronavirus outbreak.

He said he wanted to get "parity of support" so they could have similar levels of protection as waged workers.

"But there are particular complexities about the self-employed which do need to be addressed," Mr Johnson said.

"They are not all in the same position and all I can say is that we are working as fast as we possibly can to get the appropriate package of support for everybody in this country."

The PM said ministers had "done a huge amount already to strengthen the safety net for everybody in this country".

But he cautioned: "I cannot in all candour promise the House that we will be able to get through this crisis without any kind of hardship at all."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the lack of help so far meant those who are self-employed "are having to choose whether they go to work or stay at home or face losing their entire livelihood".

He called for further far-reaching action to ensure that workers can stay home and not be left out of pocket.

"The statutory sick pay level of £94.25 a week, which the health secretary admitted he couldn't live on, and despite promising he would ensure workers get the support they need, we've still not seen action on that," Mr Corbyn said.

"So unless we increase statutory sick pay and give protection and access to benefits for those on zero hours contracts, then, the dangers we're all aware of, of people going into work or trying to work when they shouldn't is going to continue.

"We do need very urgent action on this."

Wednesday's PMQs was the first since Mr Johnson announced a UK lockdown to try and halt the spread of the coronavirus.

People are now only allowed outside for "very limited" purposes, which includes shopping for necessities like food and medicine and one daily form of exercise.

The PM said the country was in the midst of something "utterly extraordinary".

"We are coming together as a nation in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime to help to defeat a disease and to help save the lives of many thousands of our fellow citizens.

"We all understand that that would involve a sacrifice, but we are gladly making that sacrifice."

In his last PMQs as Labour leader, Mr Corbyn said the outbreak of COVID-19 "shows us how deeply we depend on each other".

"We will only come through this as a society through a huge collective effort," he added.

As well as being challenged on what the government is doing to help the self-employed, the PM also came under pressure over the official advice to the construction industry.

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Construction workers can still go in as long as they can remain two metres (6.5ft) apart at all times, the government has said.

Amid reports of crowded Tube carriages in London, there have been calls for all non-emergency construction work to come to a halt in order to allow workers in that industry to stay home and avoid spreading the virus further.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has said "too many of the people using TfL services at the busiest times work in construction", as he reiterated his call for a ban on non-safety construction work.

Mr Corbyn referenced a radio call from a self-employed construction worker during his questioning of the PM.

The Labour leader said the worker had contracted COVID-19 but had "no other option but to get on the London tube and go onto a site to work".

He urged: "Can the PM be absolutely clear and give unequivocal guidance now that construction work on non-emergency work should stop now?"

The PM said in response: "Everybody should work at home unless they must go to work", adding: "If a... construction company is continuing then clearly they should do so in accordance with the guidance of Public Health England."

Another feature of the crisis in recent days has been a growing row between the London mayor and the government over the scenes of crowded Tube trains.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that there was "no good reason" why services have been cut to the extent they have.

And Mr Johnson told MPs that it should be possible to "run a better Tube system" and implement a fuller service.

However, Mr Khan has insisted this is not possible due to staff being off sick or self-isolating because of the coronavirus.

The London Underground is currently operating at around 50% of its normal capacity during peak times, which has caused overcrowding as people continue to travel despite pleas for the public to refrain from taking non-essential journeys.

NHS workers have complained that packed trains are putting their health at risk.

One potential solution was put forward by Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker.

He said there is an "army" of drivers "itching to get involved like the Spitfires in 1940" and called on the PM to facilitate them ferrying around doctors and nurses.

Mr Johnson said that the government was considering utilising the "unsung service" to transport NHS workers across the capital.