Welsh Labour MPs have criticised the Prime Minister in the House of Commons for extending the furlough scheme as England enters a second lockdown but refusing to do the same for Wales when it entered its own ‘firebreak’ lockdown.
Speaking during a Commons debate today, several MPs expressed frustration over a lack of support for regions that had already faced lockdowns, with one arguing that there was “one rule for the South of England and another for the rest of the UK”.
Pontypridd MP Alex Davies-Jones told the House: “We are now halfway through our ‘firebreak’ lockdown in North Wales and much of the North West, the North East and the West Midlands have faced significant local restrictions for months now.
“When devolved administrations and local governments argued that the 67% furlough scheme was insufficient, the UK government said that it was the best that they could do.
“And yet when similar restrictions were extended to England, including large swathes of the South, they then changed their minds and went back to 80%. So why does this government have one rule for the South of England and another for the rest of the United Kingdom?”
Reacting to the backbench MP’s question, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the government provided a “different package of support for different measures” and that furlough support had been available across the UK.
His response was heavily criticised by Ogmore Labour MP Chris Elmore, who said the government had refused to extend extra furlough support for Wales when its lockdown began “for party political reasons”.
The Welsh Labour MP and opposition frontbencher told the Commons: “The Prime Minister could possibly be confused. In his answer to the member for Pontypridd, he said that the furlough was across the UK.
“On the 16th of October, the Welsh First Minister asked the Chancellor to extend the furlough scheme from 67% to 80%. On the 19th of October, the Chancellor told the First Minister it could not be done for technical reasons.
“What are those technical reasons? Or is it more about the fact that when it suits the Prime Minister, furlough applies to all of the UK, and when it doesn’t for party political reasons it doesn’t?”
Newport East MP Jessica Morden also spoke during the debate to “echo the frustration” of her colleagues and ask whether furlough support would now be backdated in Wales. The Prime Minister neglected to answer the question.
Johnson used the debate to confirm that England will enter lockdown on Thursday, subject to a vote the day before, as revealed by the press and subsequently the government on Saturday. He also revealed further economic support.
Self-employed workers who are eligible for Covid grants will see support increased from 40% to 80% of average monthly trading profits for November only, which means the three-month grant is capped at £5,160 in total.
An extension to the wider furlough scheme, which had been due to end on Saturday, was announced in advance of the debate. This will allow furloughed workers to receive 80% wage support during the new national lockdown.
This is significantly higher than the 67% of wages being provided under the local furlough scheme, which is what Wales had to access at the start of its ‘firebreak’ lockdown that was put in place in the middle of last month.
First Minister Mark Drakeford asked at the time for more furlough support from the Westminster government to help Welsh workers get through the nation’s lockdown, but the request was refused by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
In light of the furlough extension, Warrington North MP Charlotte Nichols asked “how many people were laid off in anticipation of the furlough scheme ending” and whether Johnson would “make an apology” to those who had now lost their jobs.
Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister earlier in the Commons Covid update of having “overpromised and under-delivered” at “every stage” of the crisis and highlighted “the human cost of the government’s inaction”.
The Labour leader had previously called for a short, sharp ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in England last month but the measure was rejected by Johnson at the time in favour of his framework of tiered local coronavirus restrictions.
Discussing the failure to act sooner, shadow business minister Lucy Powell told the Commons: “I’m still not clear what has actually changed from two or three weeks ago when the PM was ridiculing the leader of the opposition…
“As he himself has said, infection rate rises have slowed over that period and hospital admissions reflect the infection rate from two or three weeks ago. This was entirely predictable and indeed it was predicted.“
The Labour frontbencher concluded: “So given that he can’t stick with a plan for more than a week, can he now give some real clarity to the criteria for the exit strategy from this national lockdown?”
The new measures in England, set to start on November 5th and end on December 2nd, will see all non-essential shops and hospitality close for four weeks – but unlike the original lockdown, schools, colleges and universities will stay open.
First Minister Mark Drakeford confirmed today that Wales would be easing its own restrictions once its ‘firebreak’ lockdown ends on November 9th despite the announcement of the new national lockdown in England.