Sunak's virus bailout 'not enough' as the flood keeps coming

Phillip Inman
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Every sector of the British economy is suffering and asking the government to do more. Such is the scale of the economic hit that the country is facing from the coronavirus pandemic that even the widening of the government’s bailout last week has failed to assuage business leaders’ concerns.

The travel industry is seeking a relaxation of consumer protection rules, charities say they face a £4bn shortfall amid rocketing demand for their services, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic says it needs a multi-million pound rescue package. Even in normal times such requests would pose a quandary for governments. But now they are flooding in at once.

Against this backdrop, the chancellor was forced to update the government’s rescue plan last week. Sunak said he would prevent banks from requesting personal guarantees for emergency loans to small businesses and would extend the reach of his £330bn coronavirus business interruption loan scheme – under which the government offers interest-free 12-month loans.

Larger firms not currently eligible for loans – the so-called “squeezed middle” of this crisis who were too big for the small-firms schemes but not large enough for the major bailout loans – would benefit from a new scheme under which the government would provide a guarantee of 80% so that banks could make loans of up to £25m to firms with an annual turnover of between £45m and £500m.

Business lobby groups backed the upgrades to the rescue plan, albeit with a warning that the small print should not prove a barrier to firms accessing vital funds. Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The announcement of a new loan scheme for mid-sized companies closes a significant gap in existing support.”

However, for some sectors it is not just a question of accessible finance. Travel firms said the difference between staying afloat and going bust could be changes to regulations as much as access to credit.

Marc Vincent, the finance director of Newmarket Holidays, said the UK needs to follow the example of other EU governments, which have overturned consumer protection rules requiring travel firms to pay customer refunds within 14 days.

Vincent said a switch to credit notes, which can be used to buy a holiday at a later date or redeemed for cash after two years, would protect hundreds of travel firms that have usually paid in advance for airline tickets and hotels that are also in lockdown.

Virgin Atlantic is campaigning for a multimillion-pound bailout. Photograph: Ian Schofield/Alamy Stock Photo

Travel firms are among many industries that have temporarily ceased their main operations, but have incurred higher costs in other areas after keeping staff working to answer customer calls or provide other services. It means they can only use the government’s furlough scheme – which pays 80% of staff salaries up to a cap of about £25,000 to workers sent home – to subsidise the cost of some staff while others remain active on the company payroll.

“While a pub will close down and furlough everyone, we need extra people to handle cases, which in many cases are complicated and take longer to deal with,” said Vincent.

Kristy Elsmere, joint managing director of the coach company Woods Travel Group, said a legal change allowing the use of credit notes would be an important reform, even though most of the company’s regular customers were accepting vouchers or re-booking trips later in the year.

Referring to one industry-specific bailout announced last week, she said: “Some coach companies also run buses and have benefited from the new £400m bus rescue scheme, so they will have some cash coming in from that. But we don’t, so we need the government to look at the package travel arrangements and allow credit notes to be given to customers.”

Sunak agreed to cover the losses of bus companies in England over the next three months to ensure that services can still run.

Bus industry executives lobbied the government after ministers advised people against all non-essential travel, and passenger numbers “fell off a cliff”. A £167m fund will ensure that bus companies can cover their costs on essential services so that key employees, such as NHS staff, can get to work. The funding, which adds to an existing £200m bus subsidy scheme, follows similar agreements in Scotland and Wales.

Stagecoach, a key player in the industry, said on Friday that its local regional bus companies were currently seeing sales at about 15% of normal levels. The company, which will suspend it Megabus coaches between major towns and cities this weekend, said the new funding would mean “key workers can still get to and from work, and that communities can still access other services”, such as shopping for food or picking up medicines.

Stagecoach has seen its coach ticket sales fall dramatically. Photograph: Alamy

Elsmere, who chairs the coach industry insurance scheme, said private coaches also provided vital services that would be missed if firms were allowed to go bust. Stately homes, hotels, schools and charitable events depend on groups travelling by coach. “People think it is just for pleasure, but it underpins so many businesses.”

Sunak and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, have argued the bus bailout was needed because firms such as Stagecoach provide vital infrastructure. A similar scheme to subsidise rail companies – effectively ending the franchise system as we know it – was justified on that basis.

This argument is not limited to bus, coach and rail companies. P&O Ferries has argued that it can be described as vital infrastructure. Last week it asked the government for a £150m bailout after passenger numbers dried up. The company, which is owned by the Dubai firm DP World, operates more than 30,000 voyages a year in Europe and accounts for about 15% of Britain’s trade. It said income from its 8.4 million passengers a year normally subsidises its income from freight lorries, but the lockdown has plunged it into a £250,000 daily loss.

Virgin Atlantic is also seeking a bailout, backed by lobbying from the aviation manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Airbus, who argue that Virgin is a major aircraft buyer and vital for the success of a key industry. Heathrow Airport, leader of another suffering sector, is also backing a Virgin bailout because the Branson-controlled airline is one of its main customers.

Retail and steel, two sectors that were hurting even before the pandemic struck, are also desperate for help. The industry lobby group UK Steel told the Treasury the nation’s steel companies were “fast approaching a cashflow crisis”.

Rishi Sunak’s loan scheme was heavily criticised, and has now been modified. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Sir Phillip Green’s Arcadia group is putting 14,500 staff on the government furlough scheme in a bid to prop up his crumbling retail empire. Meanwhile, the Horticultural Trades Association warned the government that the sector, which includes hundreds of garden centres, was facing losses of £687m by the end of June.

Energy companies, under pressure from cash-strapped households cancelling their monthly direct debt payments, have already asked the government to support a loan scheme worth up to £100m a month. Without the funds, the industry has warned it will struggle to offer payment holidays to businesses and households struggling to pay their energy bills.

A spokesman for Energy UK, the industry lobby group, said; “People are cancelling direct debits in increasing numbers. That’s a problem for suppliers working on thin margins. It means there isn’t the cushion needed to withstand an indefinite break by businesses and households in paying their bills.”

The chancellor is expected to hold the line this week and resist what he sees as special pleading from multiple sectors – even if some exceptional cases such as rail and buses are getting through. He will say his revamped loan scheme will allow all employers to access the funds they need to cope over the next few months.

Success will probably rest on how well the banks and other commercial lenders understand his new proposals and allow firms to access the new loans. Time is short for many companies and they will need funds fast.

Last week Sunak admitted that of 130,000 inquiries to access loans, only 1,000 had been agreed. Businesses will cheer if the reformed bailouts expand the rate of loan agreements. If the new efforts don’t work, those calls for sector-specific bailouts will get much louder.