Quarter of all UK workers paid to stay home on government scheme

Offices, trains stations, pubs, restaurants, leisure centres - all are deserted.

    More than six million workers in the United Kingdom are being paid by the government to stay at home.

    That number amounts to approximately a quarter of the nation's private-sector employees now on the government's furlough scheme, with 800,000 employers claiming a total - so far - of eight billion pounds ($9.9bn) from state coffers to pay them, Revenue and Customs officials said on Monday. 

    The UK's daily toll announced on Monday showed a rise of 288 deaths, for a total of 28,734 - second only within Europe to Italy. 

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    The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is central to efforts to stop mass lay-offs of workers during the forced shutdown of much of the economy, and sees the state pay 80 percent of workers' wages - up to 2,500 pounds ($3,100) a month.

    The programme is currently set up to run until the end of June, but Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said on Monday that there would be "no cliff-edge".

    "I am working as we speak to figure out the most effective way to wind down the scheme and ease people back into work in a measured way," Sunak told ITV News.

    "But as some scenarios have suggested we are potentially spending as much on the furlough scheme as we do on the NHS (National Health System), for example. Now, clearly, that is not a sustainable situation."

    The scheme has been forecast to cost around 39 billion pounds ($48.5bn), assuming that 30 percent of the nation's employees are enrolled, the UK's official budget forecasters have said.

    The furlough figures were revealed as pensions minister Therese Coffey announced the number of welfare claims had risen to six times that of pre-coronavirus levels, with 1.8 million claims for Universal Credit submitted between March 16 and the end of April.

    Universal Credit is not an accurate measure of unemployment, as some benefits are paid to people in low-paid work as well as to those who have lost their jobs.

    Johnson under pressure

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson will review the measures that have all but shuttered the UK's economy on May 7 to judge whether any can be eased, a decision which he says will be guided by the government's desire to protect public health.

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    He is under pressure from some in his governing Conservative Party to start to ease some of the measures, allowing people to return to reopened businesses and for some children to go back to school.

    But so far, the prime minister, who says he fought for his life in intensive care after contracting COVID-19, has been cautious about offering any promises, signalling he wants to bring Labour and other opposition parties on board.

    Labour leader Keir Starmer has criticised Johnson for being slow on introducing the lockdown, which began on March 23, slow on increasing testing and on providing protective equipment, but has also wanted to be constructive at a time of crisis.

    "Our priority is protecting the public's health and saving lives," Starmer said in a statement. "That is why we supported the lockdown and again support the restrictions staying in place at this time."

    "We want to support the government to get this right and that is why we need a national consensus on what happens next." 

    Tracing app raises concerns

    The UK on Monday also announced a trial project for a coronavirus tracing mobile phone app. Using Bluetooth technology, it registers when a user has been within close range of another user. If one subsequently has coronavirus diagnosed, the app can inform those with whom the infected user has come into contact with.

    It is similar in concept to other apps being developed elsewhere in Europe - except that it sends data to be processed centrally rather than solely on the devices themselves, where a higher level of privacy can be guaranteed.

    This has raised concerns among privacy activists, who say it risks breaching strict European data protection laws known as GDPR.

    But Matthew Gould, chief executive officer the National Health Service's technology group NHSX which developed the app, said they had "put privacy right at the heart of it".

    "It doesn't know who you are. It doesn't know who you've been near. It doesn't know where you are," he said.

    Other approaches, such as one being developed by Apple and Google, uses a decentralised approach to help guarantee data privacy.

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    If the Apple and Google app proves more popular across Europe, the efficiency of the UK's own custom solution may also be undermined after borders reopen if it does not communicate well with those apps being used by visitors from Europe. This is also the concern for app users in Northern Ireland, where a "soft border" with the Republic of Ireland, which remains a European Union member, could be reinforced by differing coronavirus app protocols.

    The app will also require Bluetooth to be turned on as a default measure, which raises concerns about battery drainage. 

    The app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of mainland England, and home to about 140,000 people. There have been 28 coronavirus deaths on the island, and approximately 130 cases identified.

    Health workers and council staff will be able to download the app from Tuesday, with the rest of the island's residents able to access it from Thursday.

    SOURCE: News agencies