Covid: Labour attacks Sunak over strategy to help economy

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Labour's shadow chancellor has launched a fresh attack on government support for the economy during the Covid pandemic.

In a speech, Anneliese Dodds accused her Tory counterpart Rishi Sunak of wanting to lift restrictions and withdraw help "as soon as possible".

Initially offering the "bare minimum" has led to plans being repeatedly revised, she argued.

The Treasury said "decisive action" had been taken to protect jobs and firms.

Mr Sunak is due to set out the "next phase of the plan to tackle the virus and protect jobs" at the Budget in early March.

But Ms Dodds accused him of "disappearing altogether" in recent weeks, and offering "precious little clarity" on what support firms can expect.

It comes as ministers face increasing pressure from MPs and anti-poverty charities to extend a £20 weekly top-up to universal credit benefits introduced during the pandemic.

Earlier this week, six Conservative MPs joined opposition parties in calling on the government to prolong the increase beyond its scheduled end-date of 31 March.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday that a decision on whether the top-up would continue was unlikely before the Budget.

But it is understood ministers have already held talks on whether it should be extended, tweaked, or replaced with a one-off payment.

'Repeated tinkering'

The government has already confirmed another extension of the the furlough wage support scheme, which had been set to wind down at the end of March, until the end of April.

In an online speech to the London School of Economics, Ms Dodds criticised the chancellor for having "called this crisis wrong time and again".

She added that "repeated tinkering" with economic support, including the furlough scheme, had "hammered confidence" and left employers unable to plan.

"The chancellor's desperation to reopen the economy as quickly as possible, and extricate the Treasury from its various support schemes, has been swept away by successive waves of the pandemic," she added.

'Billions of support'

She also called for clearer communication of who can qualify for government payments intended to help those on low incomes self-isolate.

In response, a Treasury spokesperson said the chancellor had protected "millions of jobs and businesses across the UK," with £280bn provided since the start of the pandemic.

They added that the furlough scheme, along with a similar scheme for the self-employed, had helped "some of the lowest-paid workers," whilst the welfare system had been "strengthened with billions of support".

A further £20m would be made available for the self-isolation payment scheme later this month, they added, with more funding to me made available "in due course".

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