While Germany extends their furlough scheme until the end of 2021, the UK’s is set to end this month – to be replaced by a new Job Support Scheme where workers will have to work at least a third of their usual hours to qualify.
At a time when Covid cases are rising across the country and we are experiencing a wave of local lockdowns, this policy has come in for considerable criticism. In all likelihood, it means that there will be a drastic spike in unemployment this winter on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who have already lost their jobs during this pandemic. Rishi Sunak all but acknowledged this at Tory conference this week when he said that he “couldn’t save every job.”
So, what is Rishi Sunak’s plan for this wave of unemployment? Work coaches, it turns out. Thousands of work coaches will be hired by the Department of Work and Pensions for the Job Entry Targeted Support scheme (JETS), costing £238 million.
The JETS scheme is described on the government website as involving, “specialist advice on how people can move into growing sectors, as well as CV and interview coaching.” It launches this week in the North of England, Wales and some parts of London and the South, and will then extend to the rest of England later in 2020 and Scotland early next year.
As Tribune columnist Grace Blakeley remarked, the criticism of this scheme is that it is “training people for jobs that don’t exist while failing to create jobs that should exist.” And the jobs aren’t likely to exist any time soon. Deaths due to the coronavirus have been rising steadily over the past few weeks and in a bizarre twist it was recently revealed that over 15,000 cases had been overlooked due to an error with an Excel spreadsheet, which may lead to yet more areas going into local lockdowns.
Unemployment is rising, especially among young people, as the furlough ends and the chances of a ‘normal’ Christmas recede rapidly. The constant U-turns of government Covid policies have made it extremely difficult for many small businesses to even keep going without financial support – which, largely, they are failing to receive. All of this means that job training is likely to be a spectacularly unsuccessful way of solving the impending jobs crisis.
However, even if we were not currently living through a historic pandemic, this scheme would still be worth criticising. It has been a classic trick of Tory governments to place responsibility for poor jobs markets onto individuals – specifically, the unemployed – rather than on government policy. Here again, Boris Johnson’s feeble announcement that £160 million would be spent on green energy policies (Germany recently announced a €40 billion plan) shows how little responsibility the government is taking to create jobs to replace those being lost.
As anyone who experienced the 2009 recession already knows, it doesn’t matter how much training people are given if companies are not able to hire more workers. Only days before this scheme was announced, Cineworld released a statement that they would close every single UK screen, a move which will result in the loss of thousands of jobs. It was followed by Odeon announcing they would now operate on a weekend-only basis in some cinemas.
Much like when the aviation and broader culture sectors saw crises earlier in the pandemic – with thousands of jobs lost or workers forced into ‘fire and rehire’ schemes – those hoping that the government might support a bailout were disappointed. The Prime Minister’s response was to urge the British public to go back to the cinema. This came immediately after he blamed the public’s complacency for the rise in Covid infections.
The nightlife industry, worth £66 billion, has also been left in a catastrophic position since March. When questioned by Kay Burley on Sky News about why the Job Support Scheme does not help people working in this industry (due to its work requirements), Health Minister Helen Whatley said, “it doesn’t make sense to continue supporting jobs where there simply isn’t work at the moment.” The same logic is clearly being applied across retail, leading to closures at Debenhams, M&S, John Lewis and Boots.
So, where are these jobs that people are training for? Work coaches telling us to update our CVs or learn new skills won’t create the hundreds of thousands of jobs people will need to apply to. Instead, seen in the cold light of day, the JETS scheme looks more like evasion than action – a propaganda exercise to place responsibility for getting back to work onto the individual, while distracting from government inaction.
For many people, the job losses and the JETS scheme are just the latest flimsy offer of “support” from a government failing to understand the scale of the crisis. Although the furlough scheme prevented many workers losing their jobs, hundreds of thousands have been struggling since the pandemic began.
In the early days of the virus alone, nearly two million people claimed Universal Credit – but at £94 a week, it’s not nearly enough for someone to live on. If the Chancellor’s plans to cut these rates further go ahead, the lowest income households will be hit the hardest.
Throughout the Covid crisis, the government has had a track record of shifting responsibility to the public. Now, they plan to do the same for the jobs crisis. Don’t be surprised if more of the old scapegoating of unemployed people – or “welfare scroungers,” as David Cameron used to say – makes a return in the coming weeks. After all, they will need someone to blame.