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Time is running out for ministers to help the self-employed

Constructions workers on a building site in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 24, 2020. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus Ulster. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire 
Construction is among those sectors where new guidance on social distancing has caused confusion

Within hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement of a virtual nationwide lockdown, there was confusion over what it meant. In particular, which workers are considered to belong to groups that cannot work from home?

It is obvious they must include construction site employees and Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, said builders should keep going while operating social distancing. Yet the country’s biggest companies promptly shut down their activities, putting the jobs of thousands of contract staff at risk.

Construction has carried on in countries like Italy and France where the lockdown has been even more tightly applied than here. The principal objection to young people working is that they might infect older, vulnerable people, in which case might it not be possible to keep the latter away from the former and not the former away from their livelihoods?

There were complaints that despite Boris Johnson’s “stay apart” order, construction workers were cramming into Tube carriages. But that is because Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has reduced services. This is exacerbating the difficulties and needs to be reversed forthwith.

As Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said at his news conference in Downing Street – where he had good news about ramping up testing and the improved capacity of the NHS – there is no obvious reason for cutting the number of Tube trains.

The impact of this economic shutdown on the self-employed will be devastating unless they can either work or be helped. About 5 million people are in this position. Since the Government has not yet been able to put together a package of protection for the self-employed, how can the state tell people who will have no money and no way of supporting themselves not to work? Nor is it incumbent on private companies to second guess Government policy by taking action that goes beyond what is required. Firms that have done so should not qualify for the state-backed loans.

The Chancellor told the Commons that designing a scheme for the self-employed was “incredibly complicated” but time is running out and we are only a few weeks into this crisis. What is the future to look like for these people in three weeks’ time? There will be some serious hardship quite soon with all the attendant problems, including a breakdown in social order.