UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Picture: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS
UK chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Picture: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS

London — The UK will plough £1.6bn into theatres, museums and music venues in a bid to rescue the country’s arts and culture sector from the brink of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.

The money “will go to those institutions that most need it, to see them through this storm”, culture secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News on Monday. “The biggest challenge we will have, and this is still some way off, is returning without social distancing.”

The cash for cultural institutions includes £880m of grants and £270m of repayable loans, the department for digital, culture, media and sport said in a statement on Sunday. Separately, the treasury announced a £111m plan to triple the number of traineeships nationwide, as chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak expands measures to protect jobs.

Ministers are trying to rescue the economy after the pandemic plunged it into what may be the deepest recession in 300 years. Sunak will outline to parliament on Wednesday the next steps in the government’s plans to kick-start the economy, adding to Johnson’s pledge last week to “build, build, build,” by bringing forward 5 billion pounds of spending on roads, schools and hospitals.

Homes and pubs

The Times reported late on Sunday that the chancellor is set to unveil a temporary tax holiday for most homebuyers by raising the level at which duty is paid to as much as £500,000 from £125,000 currently. He’ll also unveil a temporary cut in VAT for cafes, pubs and restaurants, the paper said. The treasury declined to comment.

Sunak plans to deliver a wider package of fiscal measures to boost the economy in a budget in the fall. But with state wage support for more than nine-million private sector jobs due to begin phasing out next month, there’s been a growing clamour for further assistance for the worst-affected sectors, including the country’s renowned theatres, which have yet to reopen.

“This money will help safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff while their doors remain closed and curtains remain down,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “The UK’s cultural industry is the beating heart of this country.”

Galleries, heritage sites and independent cinemas will also be eligible for the cultural grants. The arts funds also included 100 million pounds of targeted support for English national cultural institutions and the English Heritage Trust, £188m for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and £120m for infrastructure projects.

Open letter

Johnson has pledged to publish a timetable this week outlining when theatres and music venues will be allowed to reopen, joining the pubs, hairdressers and museums that were allowed to open their doors this weekend after more than three months of lockdown.

It represents a high-profile win for a part of the economy that’s contributed hugely to Britain’s international image over the years.

Last week, set designers and other industry workers covered empty theatres nationwide in tape with the message “missing live theatre.” And Armando Iannucci, one of the country’s leading political satirists, wrote an open letter to culture secretary Oliver Dowden last month asking why a chunk of the economy that he says supports 400,000 jobs was being sidelined.

In other developments:

  • The government is preparing to start phasing out the use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G telecoms network
  • Simon Stevens, CEO of the National Health Service in England, set the government a one-year target to fix the country’s social care system
  • Health secretary Matt Hancock said there are concerns about employment practices about some clothing factories in Leicester, where local lockdown is in place to stamp out a coronavirus outbreak

After unprecedented state support for private-sector wages during the lockdown, Sunak’s priority is to protect and create jobs, particularly for the young, who are the most vulnerable to a wave of unemployment caused by the outbreak. Late on Sunday, the treasury announced plans to triple the number of traineeships, offering businesses £1,000 for each trainee aged 16- 24 that they take on.

Work coaches

That follows a Treasury announcement on Saturday of £800m of new funding to double the number of work coaches in job centres to 27,000 to help benefit claimants back into work, with an initial 4,500 hires by October.

With officials downplaying expectations about Wednesday’s statement, Sunak is coming under pressure from business groups to ensure he doesn’t just do the bare minimum to revive the economy.

“We really want them to get ahead of the problem rather than be mopping up behind it,” British Chambers of Commerce director Gen Adam Marshall said in an interview.

Marshall called for wage subsidies for apprentices, a fund to support jobs for young people and a cut to national insurance payments made by employers. He also suggested the government could issue vouchers for households to spend on retail high streets to get the economy moving again.

Bloomberg