Self-employed people losing work over coronavirus will be handed emergency grants worth 80% of their average income up to £2,500 a month, Rishi Sunak has said.
The payments will be based on a self-employed person’s profits over the last one to three years and will be capped at those with trading profits of £50,000.
But the chancellor signalled the self-employed faced waiting more than two months as he accepted the scheme may not be ready until June.
Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street, he said he recognised people who work for themselves were “deeply anxious” as the spread of the virus shut down businesses, and told them: “You have not been forgotten.”
Sunak said: “This scheme will be open to people across the UK for at least three months.
“And I will extend it for longer if necessary. You will be able to claim these grants and continue to do business.”
Sunak said the “economic fight” against coronavirus had been drawn up with the help of businesses and unions and was a “coherent, co-ordinated and comprehensive plan” that was “already starting to make a difference”.
He added the scheme will be only available to those who make the majority of their income from self-employment, so only the “genuinely self-employed” benefit.
“To minimise fraud, only those who are already in self-employment who have a tax return for 2019 will be able to apply,” he said.
“Ninety five percent of people who are majority self-employed will benefit from this scheme.
“HMRC are working on this urgently and expect people to be able to access this scheme no later from the beginning of June.”
Those facing a wait will be able to access benefits such as Universal Credit.
But Sunak also suggested the changes could mean self-employed workers have to accept changes to their tax breaks in future.
“I must be honest and point out that in devising this scheme in response to many calls for support, it is now much harder to justify the inconsistent contributions between people of different employment statuses,” said the chancellor.
“If we all want to benefit equally from state support, we must all pay in equally in future.”
A string of opposition MPs have already sounded the alarm over the two-month wait the self-employed face.
Cardiff South Labour MP Stephen Doughty tweeted: “June? What are people supposed to do till then? Five-week wait for Universal Credit at moment. This is huge sting in tail to what is otherwise a clearly substantial announcement by Rishi Sunak.”
Lib Dem Layla Moran said the government should have considered a universal basic income (UBI).
She said: “Eighty per cent grant for the self-employed is welcome. But waiting until June does not give self-employed parity with those in employment. Huge missed opportunity to introduce UBI.”
The SNP’s Amy Callaghan, meanwhile, called the delay “unfathomable”, adding: “My constituents are struggling now. Simply not good enough.”
The chancellor said people struggling to wait until June could access business interruption loans.
Ministers had been under increasing pressure to offer the self-employed a package of support on a par with that handed to workers.
Those eligible will be contacted by HMRC and the money will be paid into their bank accounts.
And he said anyone who missed January’s filing deadline will have four weeks to submit their tax return so no one misses out on support.
But anyone who has been self-employed for less than a year and does not have 12 months’ worth of accounts to submit will be unable to access the scheme, the chancellor added, because it would be too administratively complicated and too open to fraud to extend it to them.
The government announced this week that the Excel conference centre, in London, would be transformed into a 4,000-bed military hospital. Downing Street has also said it is considering further field hospitals in Manchester and Birmingham.
Meanwhile, more than 400,000 people have volunteered to help the NHS after a call for help from the PM.
As a result, GPs, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, NHS 111 advisers and social care staff will all be able to request help for at-risk patients through a call centre run by the Royal Voluntary Service, which will match people who need help with volunteers who live near them.