THE Prime Minister said he would put his arms around every single worker in the country to get them through the crisis – so either the crisis is over, or those metaphorical arms weren’t quite long enough to complete the group hug. Perhaps they were getting pins and needles.

The furlough scheme is coming to an end next month, as scheduled, and in its place will be the Jobs Support Scheme. At first glance, for employees, this doesn’t look like such a huge change. They can still get up to 77% of their normal salaries for six months, compared to 80% under furlough. But it’s not quite as simple as it seems.

Here comes the maths bit: to be eligible for the scheme, an employee needs to be working one-third, or 33%, of their hours. They’ll be paid as normal for that. So far, so straightforward. That leaves 66% of their hours unworked, but the government will pay them for one-third of those (not 33%, one-third of their total hours, but 22%, which is one-third of the remainder). So that’s 33% paid by their employer plus 22% paid by the government – a total of 55%. Are you still with me?

So where does the other 22% come from? Ah, it also comes from the employer. So the employer is paying 55% of that 77% total, but still only getting 33% of the work. Suddenly that 77% of salary doesn’t seem like such a sure thing.

The scheme announcement raises a lot of questions. Firstly, when the Government refers to an employee and “their hours”, what exactly does that mean? If it means contracted hours – as opposed to average hours, as used for furlough calculations – where does that leave those on the zero-hour contracts that are standard in hospitality, leisure and the arts? Research from 2018 found more than two-thirds of low-paid workers in these sectors were on such contracts.

One-third of zero hours is zero hours, zero pay and zero government contribution. Far from providing targeted support for the sectors worst affected by Covid-19, it seems as though the UK Government is leaving them high and dry.

Hotels, pubs, cafes and restaurants that are open will still need staff – albeit a smaller number, especially given the new 10pm curfew – but, even assuming workers have fixed-hours contracts, is there an incentive to keep on three of them, each working one-third of those fixed hours, rather than one employee working 100%?

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Given the potential for staff to bring the virus into their workplaces, wouldn’t keeping on three workers triple the risk of a damaging shutdown or expensive deep clean, while costing the employer more? Is it ruthless for managers to make such calculations, or responsible?

Of course, all business owners want to remain optimistic about the long-term future, and look ahead to a time when restrictions are lifted, demand rises again and they need a full workforce again, but there can be no certainty about when – or even if – that will happen. Amid this uncertainty, the UK Government now requires them to prove their businesses are “viable”.

What will be the test for viability? We are told on a daily basis that we cannot – perhaps ever – return to “normal”, so it is surely impossible for any business owner to make confident predictions about future trade. Will cafes and restaurants be able to fill their tables to capacity this time next year? We simply don’t know. Will customers be willing to pay more for meals, drinks and cultural experiences, to reflect the additional costs of those providing them? Some will, but many will no longer be able to afford evenings out at all, having lost their jobs this winter.

Can the owner of a B&B be sure of attracting winter guests, given the restrictions under which we are currently living and the possibility that travel limits might be reintroduced? What about a venue that specialises in large summer weddings – is that considered a viable business today? Where is the support for theatres that usually fund spring drama productions with ticket sales from Christmas pantomimes, in which multiple generations sit cheek to cheek and shouting at the stage is all part of the fun?

Rishi Sunak said yesterday “I cannot save every business; I cannot save every job” and of course we knew that was the case. But human workers are not interchangeable units that can simply be slotted in and out in accordance with the fickle demands of the market.

Cafes and restaurants that have been built up from scratch with years of hard graft, grassroots groups that have blossomed into world-leading arts companies – put them on ice now and there is no guarantee they will flourish again when conditions are more favourable.

Of course new businesses will spring up when that time comes. There will always be people with money to invest when there are opportunities to exploit – the kind of people whose donations keep the Tory party’s bank balance healthy even when the country is stricken. Pals of millionaires like Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.

The decisions Johnson is making now will have devastating consequences for those whose businesses are deemed “non-viable”, and yet it seems highly likely he’ll have been ruled a non-viable Prime Minister by the time this new scheme ends. He’s a lame duck, a spent force, a deflated novelty balloon. His government is deciding which of us deserve breathing space while his own colleagues brief against him, asserting that his leadership is on its last legs. When he said “we’re all in this together”, this is probably not quite what he meant.