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Mr Johnson, where's the beef?

On point from Ian McConnell in the Herald this morning on the utter lack of substance of Tory soundbites, when what's needed is concrete action to protect workers and income from the fast approaching cliff edge of furlough and universal credit uplift coming to an end, with all the harms that will cause.

As he says, "The UK Government's "jobs, jobs, jobs" plan seems largely devoid of substance".

Text of the article below: THE question that sprang to mind when contemplating Boris Johnson's "jabs, jabs, jabs" to "jobs, jobs, jobs" characterisation of his Government's Covid-19 recovery plan was: "Where's the beef?".

This phrase, used originally by US fast-food chain Wendy's in a 1984 advertising campaign, catapulted its way to the front of the mind with a recollection of political events that year. Walter Mondale hitting upon the question from the Wendy's commercial and asking it of Gary Hart was a memorable moment in the contest to be the US presidential candidate for the Democrats.

Mr Mondale, who served as the 42nd vice-president of the US under Jimmy Carter, went on to win the nomination but lost in the election to Republican Ronald Reagan, the incumbent. The late Mr Mondale was obviously a political heavyweight but Mr Hart, regardless of the memorable soundbite, also had plenty of substance about him.

In this regard, the "where's the beef?" question seemed somewhat unfair.

However, it is a question which is most apposite to the Johnson Government's recovery plans, as well as to the administration's behaviour more generally, given it seems to be fuelled so much by big talk in these days in which voters south of the Border are lapping up slogans and populism.

The Conservatives have been at pains to proclaim the success of their UK vaccine rollout programme.

This has occurred at pace, and this is a major relief, especially given the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the country, exacerbated by the UK Government having been too slow to lock down on several occasions.

However, contrary to popular opinion in some quarters, the speedy rollout was not facilitated by Brexit and would have been possible as a European Union member state. This is crucial to remember for anyone interested in substance over rhetoric.

We should also bear in mind that international collaboration and efforts have been the key to developing vaccines in the first place.

Yes, the UK Government backed the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and has been keen to highlight this fact. However, announcing trial results last November, Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, emphasised it had been a "multi-national effort". The success arose from the efforts of researchers based around the world.

The UK Government has also been using huge numbers of doses of vaccines developed by US group Moderna and by the partnership of American giant Pfizer and BioNTech of Germany.

So that is the backdrop to the "jabs, jabs, jabs" bit of Mr Johnson's sloganeering. The likes of Brexiters have, lamentably but predictably, been at pains on this front to highlight a slower start on the European Union vaccine rollout. The EU is of course now catching up, and everyone in the UK should be glad about this in terms of the greater economic and social good, no matter the degree of ideological entrenchment of some people.

Quite where Mr Johnson is getting his "jobs, jobs, jobs" confidence from is entirely unclear.

However, it is easy to see threats to jobs, as the awful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out.

The UK Government has, of course, already cost large numbers of people their jobs by intransigence around extending its own coronavirus job retention scheme last year. It seemed that this was an ideological problem for the Tories, who could actually have celebrated the success of their scheme in supporting millions of jobs rather than repeatedly threatening its premature end.

Of course, this intransigence had to be abandoned as the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were overtaken by reality. Sadly by this time many employers, entirely in the dark about what was going to happen with the furlough scheme and probably even believing the UK Government's previous insistence it would stop last October, had shed jobs.

The furlough scheme, which it must be emphasised has nevertheless saved huge numbers of jobs, is now due to end in September.

However, while it should have been obvious all along to anyone who wanted to mull it over, it has become ever-more apparent that things are going to be far from back to normal on the economic front by September.

In Scotland, the challenges ahead are evident in the need to impose tighter restrictions on Moray and Glasgow and travel bans in and out of these areas amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, with talk that other local authority areas might also be in danger of such measures being reintroduced.

Late last week, hospitality businesses in Glasgow suffered a major blow with the eleventh-hour news that they would not, as had been thought previously, be able to begin serving alcohol indoors from Monday this week.

While this sparked a furious reaction, there seemed to be an acknowledgement from some in the business community that this late notice had probably arisen from the best of intentions.

It appeared from an external perspective that the Scottish Government held off in the hope of avoiding having to rule that the planned easing of restrictions in Glasgow on Monday, which would have been a hugely important boost to hospitality businesses, could not go ahead.

Glasgow Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stuart Patrick, while highlighting his view in The Herald this week that "once again communication with business groups has not been especially effective", wrote: "To be fair to the Scottish Government, it does appear the decision to hold Glasgow in level three for the time being was taken with the greatest reluctance and the late announcement came in the hope that the case rates in the southside would stabilise."

If the decision had been taken days earlier, many might have argued it was premature. And an eleventh-hour assessment would have been better for businesses than that scenario if it had enabled the planned easing to go ahead. Sadly, given the number of coronavirus cases and amid worries over the Indian variant, it did not. So hospitality businesses were left facing the worst of all worlds - a continuing ban on serving alcohol indoors announced at the last moment. Many restaurants had invested much money in perishable food in anticipation of an upsurge in business with the easing of restrictions.

The inability of Glasgow to move to looser coronavirus restrictions this week highlights the fact that, even with huge numbers of people having been vaccinated, the path remains difficult and uncertain.

This situation should improve greatly in coming weeks and months as the vaccination arithmetic becomes even more favourable.

However, financial support for households and businesses which continue to be hit hard by the coronavirus crisis will be crucial.

There has rightly been a focus on how much grant funding businesses in areas remaining under higher-level restrictions need, particularly when their difficulties are compounded by travel bans.

The support must be adequate.

Obviously, the Scottish Government must play its part in ensuring this is the case. And this will be important in preventing business failures, and preserving jobs and supply-side capacity.

However, we must also remember where the main tax-raising powers for the whole of the UK lie. And in this regard the Johnson Government must make sure it provides adequate coronavirus crisis-related support for the whole of the UK.

It must be ensured that the recovery is not put in peril because there is not adequate funding to enable the measures required to prevent coronavirus cases getting out of control again. Hopefully, major restrictions will before too much longer become a thing of the past but we are clearly not there yet.

And, crucially, when it comes to "jobs, jobs, jobs", we must remember that, while Scotland might at times be a goldfish bowl in which carping about handling of the economy is magnified, the biggest thing that will in coming months continue to make the difference on the employment front is adequate furlough support.

The Liberal Democrats this week called for the furlough scheme to be extended until the end of the year.

The party tweeted: "We must not be lulled into any false sense of security by the furlough scheme, which has protected millions of jobs but is due to end in September. We need to see the furlough scheme maintained at least until the end of the year."

This seems like common sense. However, as French writer Voltaire (François-Marie d'Arouet) noted, it is sometimes observed that common sense is very rare.

Kirsten Oswald, the SNP's deputy Westminster leader, last week called on the UK Government to U-turn on plans to abandon the furlough scheme in September, warning such an ending of the programme would represent a "damaging cliff-edge". She also urged Mr Johnson to extend the £20 per week universal credit uplift beyond September, and to introduce legislation to scrap the "disgraceful practice" of firing and rehiring by employers in the UK.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, firing and rehiring moves by some companies have certainly stuck in the craw.

Mr Johnson, in his response, sounded a bit like Mr Sunak last summer when the Chancellor was refusing to extend the furlough scheme and his alternative measures looked woefully inadequate.

The Prime Minister cited the UK Government's Kickstart scheme, which aims to create jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit who are at risk of long-term unemployment. He also flagged the Restart programme for the long-term unemployed. These are very specific programmes, targeted at particular groups of people. There is a much broader problem here. We must hope Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak realise this.

Millions of people across the UK, of all ages and working in a vast array of sectors, are still on furlough. Surely everything must be thrown at stopping as many of these people as possible from becoming unemployed?

The UK Government's "jobs, jobs, jobs" plan seems largely devoid of substance.

So, Mr Johnson, where's the beef?


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