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Coronavirus: Prime minister Boris Johnson tells firms 'stand by workers'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke at a live daily briefing to update the public on the coronavirus and the government's response. (PA)

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has urged businesses considering laying off staff to “stand by your workers” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The prime minister issued the appeal to employers amid warnings the economic turmoil caused by the outbreak and ‘social distancing’ response risk sending many firms to the wall.

Johnson used his daily briefing to the media and public on Thursday to promise firms the government will support them to save jobs. “I say to business — stand by your employees, because we’re going to stand by you.”

He said previous governments had been accused of bailing out the banks during the 2008-2009 financial crisis but “didn’t look after the people who really suffer.”

“This time it’s going to be different,” he told journalists. “We’re going to make sure we look after the people who really suffer from the economic consequences of what we ask them to do.”

Read more: Bank of England cuts interest rate to record low 0.1%

But he declined to give any further details about what the government would do to support jobs. He said chancellor Rishi Sunak would make an announcement on Friday, and the government would have a “great package ready to go” after talks with groups including trade unions on Thursday.

The government has come under fire for not outlining direct support to save jobs and support poor and vulnerable households sooner. There are concerns about the “unprecedented” £330bn ($381bn) of loans and guarantees the chancellor promised firms earlier this week.

Some firms are said to be unwilling to take out loans with no clear end to the pandemic in sight, and face urgent decisions over redundancies as demand has collapsed. Some business leaders have warned government loan schemes will prove too slow and ill-adapted to their needs.

Johnson also said in the update:

  • Britain could “turn the tide” on the virus within 12 weeks if the public follow all government health advice and scientific progress continues in detecting the illness.

  • There is “no prospect” of the London Underground being shut down, and pubs, cafes and other venues may only be shut if government advice to avoid them “isn’t working.”

  • Shoppers should be “reasonable” and “considerate” in their buying, with supermarkets under enormous strain as stockpiling has soared.

  • The government is in talks over buying “100s of 1000s” of new antibody tests if makers’ claims are accurate, saying they could be a “game-changer.” They allow testing of whether people have had the virus in the past.

Read more: New rights for workers could prevent mass job losses

It comes after fresh emergency measures to tackle the crisis were also announced by Bank of England earlier on Thursday. It confirmed its second emergency interest rate cut in just over a week, amid enormous market volatility and a rapidly deteriorating economy in the UK and around the world.

New governor Andrew Bailey also said rumours that “London was going into lockdown” had contributed to market volatility.

The central bank’s monetary policy committee voted unanimously to lower rates from 0.25% to 0.1%, their lowest level on record.

The bank warned of a “sharp and large” hit to the economy from the pandemic. The announcement came alongside another ramping up of quantitative easing (QE) by £200bn, effectively printing new money to buy up bonds.