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UK unemployment hits 5% after hiring recovery put on hold

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The UK labour market was all but frozen at the end of 2020, with unemployment edging up and a previous pick-up in hiring starting to stall as the surge in Covid-19 infections put reopening on hold.

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The jobless rate rose to 5.1 per cent in the three months to December, a rise of 0.4 percentage points from the previous quarter and in line with expectations, official statistics showed on Tuesday. The employment rate of 75 per cent was 1.5 percentage points lower than a year earlier, with 541,000 fewer people in employment.

The figures suggest that the extension of the government’s furlough scheme has helped to limit redundancies. They will reinforce calls from business and unions for support to be extended well after the reopening of the economy begins to reduce the risk of a further surge in job losses.

“The government will need to provide ongoing help . . . the Budget next week needs to provide a bridge for businesses to begin the process of rescaling and rehiring,” said Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors.

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Ben Harrison, director of the Work Foundation, said it was “vital that support measures remain in place for as long as they are needed, so that workers and employers do not face a cliff edge as restrictions are eased.”

“Throughout the crisis, my focus has been on doing everything we can to protect jobs and livelihoods,” chancellor Rishi Sunak said in response to the data, adding that he would set out measures to support jobs through the remainder of the pandemic and recovery in next week’s Budget.

The headline unemployment rate does not reflect the true extent of slack in the labour market.

Real-time payroll data collected by HM Revenue & Customs suggest that despite small increases over the past two months, there are 726,000 fewer employee jobs in the UK than there were last February before the pandemic hit, a fall of 2.5 per cent. The biggest drop in payrolled employees has been among 18 to 24-year-olds.

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In addition, more than 300,000 people said in December that they were away from work because of the pandemic and receiving no pay. The ONS said that around 10 per cent of the workforce had been asked to take furlough leave in early December, with almost double those numbers furloughed once the latest lockdown was in place in January.

Hiring activity — which had improved since the summer — also began to slow as renewed lockdowns hit the hospitality industry, the ONS said. The number of job vacancies in the three months to January was 26 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, with the improvement seen since the summer slowing over the past few months.



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Australian ‘buy now pay later’ group Zip steps up UK expansion

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Zip Co, an Australia-listed “buy now pay later” company, will ramp up its expansion in the UK despite a government decision to regulate the fast-growing sector, the company has said.

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Co-founder Larry Diamond said Homebase, Boohoo and The Fragrance Shop would be among the first retailers to join its UK platform, which enables customers to pay for products worth up to £1,000 in interest-free instalments.

Zip was to invest A$20m ($15m) in the UK this year, he said, joining a growing list of BNPL companies such as Klarna and Afterpay that are battling for market share in a sector changing how young people shop.

Diamond said Zip’s global retail partners had asked it to expand beyond Australia and the US, where it has 5.7m customers.

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Zip, which is targeting 10m British customers within three years, is not worried about Whitehall’s decision to ask the Financial Conduct Authority to regulate a sector it warned could harm consumers.

“We’ve always pushed for fit-for-purpose regulation,” Diamond told the Financial Times. “Globally, customers are choosing to pay this way because it is a better and fairer digital alternative to the credit card, which has high interest rates.

“Responsibility is in the DNA of our organisation. We’ve done identity and credit checks since inception, unlike some of our peers . . . We definitely support lifting minimum standards across the industry.”

Most BNPL companies allow shoppers to buy goods instantly, with no affordability checks, and to spread payments over months. The companies are paid by the retailers and customers pay no interest unless they miss payments, which leads to mounting penalties.

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A UK government review published on February 2 found the number of BNPL transactions in the UK almost quadrupled to £2.7bn in 2020. Many consumers did not view these products as credit, and so did not apply the same level of scrutiny, it said.

Consumer groups in the UK and elsewhere have warned that the products risk causing a “debt crisis” for millennials.

Analysts say regulation could hit customer acquisition rates, with customers potentially being restricted to using one BNPL platform or excluded altogether depending on their creditworthiness.

“How onerous the regulations will be remains unclear but it sounds likely that additional affordability tests may be required for new customers at sign-up, which adds further layers to the application process,” said Tim Piper, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

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Diamond said regulation needed to be calibrated to avoid stifling innovation and pushing customers back to credit cards with high interest charges.

Valuations across the BNPL sector have surged over the past year even though many companies, including Zip and Afterpay, an Australia-listed BNPL rival that trades under the name Clearpay in the UK, have never made a profit. Zip and Afterpay have more than trebled in value over the past 12 months to A$5.7bn and A$34bn respectively.

Diamond said the BNPL sector had demonstrated its robustness during the pandemic, which caused a flight to online shopping. Concerns about a technology crash were overdone, he added, and as long as companies focused on fundamentals, BNPL was “a good long-term play”.



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Healthcare inequality exposed in Why is Covid Killing People of Colour? on BBC1

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Actor David Harewood looks to be in resplendent health, but as a black 55-year-old he’s aghast to discover that he would be three times more likely to die of Covid-19 than a white man of the same age. He sets out to discover why the pandemic has a disproportionate effect on Bame communities. At London’s Northwick Park Hospital, for example, where the sickest patients from Brent (Bame population 65 per cent) were funnelled, Dr Tariq Husain observed: “It wasn’t the white people who were getting Covid.”

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One widespread theory is that a deficiency of immunity-boosting vitamin D could be to blame, since it is harder for darker skin to develop enough under dull British skies. The theory offers a ready solution to the problem: supplementation — but it also swerves the issue of racism. Even the professor working on a study cautions that “at best, it’s part of the puzzle”. Another indubitable factor is healthcare inequality, and the programme spells out the implications in detail.

Individual case studies are backed up with plenty of statistics. One obvious explanation is that poverty and deprivation more likely to be experienced by Bame communities, and “deprivation is bad for your health”. Obesity is more prevalent in poor areas (36 per cent as opposed to 21 per cent among the more affluent) and life expectancy is eight years shorter. A person of Bangladeshi origin is 114 per cent more likely than a white person to live in a deprived area. For those of Pakistani heritage, it’s 246 per cent.

People of colour are also much more likely than white counterparts to work in front-line jobs such as transport and the health service. Harewood discovers that 95 per cent of doctors who died of Covid are Bame, even though “doctors aren’t poor”. They are, however, less likely to be listened to when raising issues of inadequate protective equipment and personal safety.

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On the patient side, one US study found a widespread belief among healthcare practitioners that “black people can withstand greater pain than white people”, leading to the withholding of pain medication. In the UK, black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or during childbirth. One woman was told, as her daughter struggled to give birth in hospital: “Black women’s pelvises are different.”

The most searing element for Harewood, as someone who suffered a psychotic episode when he was younger, involves mental health inequality and harsher treatment for black men with mental illnesses; as he poignantly puts it, “fear of this big black person”. Cutting to the root, he asks whether “racism itself could be making us ill” and learns that the “physiological reaction to cultural oppression” could be adding years to his chronological age. Where’s the vitamin pill for that?

★★★★☆

On BBC1, March 2 at 9pm

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Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen





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Jurgen Klopp believes Liverpool’s title parade WON’T take place this summer

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Jurgen Klopp believes Liverpool’s long-awaited title parade WON’T take place this summer as he can’t see thousands of fans being allowed in the streets despite Government’s plan to remove all restrictions from June 21

  • Liverpool are yet to celebrate their 2019-20 Premier League win with a parade 
  • 750,000 people gathered to celebrate their 2019 Champions League victory 
  • But no such celebration has been possible due to the coronavirus pandemic 
  • Jurgen Klopp does not think a parade with thousands will be possible this summer despite the roadmap out of lockdown published this week  
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Jurgen Klopp is doubtful a gigantic parade in Liverpool to celebrate last season’s Premier League triumph will be able to take place this summer despite the publishing of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown

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The Reds have as of yet been unable to celebrate their 2019-20 league title – their first in 30 years – with a traditional open-top bus parade through the city with their fans, in a similar style to the incredible scenes after their 2019 Champions League victory. 

As per prime minister Boris Johnson‘s announcement on Monday, all legal limits on social contact and restrictions on large events are scheduled to be lifted from June 21 – yet Klopp is doubtful whether more than 500,000 people will be allowed tightly packed on the streets this summer. 

Jurgen Klopp is doubtful a parade in Liverpool will be able to take place this summer despite the government's roadmap out of lockdown this week

More than 750,000 fans attended the parade following Liverpool's 2019 Champions League triumph

Jurgen Klopp is doubtful a parade in Liverpool will be able to take place this summer to celebrate their league title win despite the government’s roadmap out of lockdown this week 

Liverpool's players are yet to celebrate last season's Premier League triumph with a bus parade

Liverpool’s players are yet to celebrate last season’s Premier League triumph with a bus parade

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‘When it’s right to look forward to it I will be on fire – but that’s not the moment,’ Klopp said, in his pre-match press conference before Sunday’s game at Sheffield United. 

‘If it’ll be possible to celebrate with 600-800,000 fans in the street in summer? I don’t see that. 

‘Maybe I’m not positive enough. But there’s no need to think about that yet.’ 

Around 750,000 people attended the parade in June 2019 after Liverpool won the Champions League. 

Thousands gathered outside Anfield too last summer, on the night Klopp’s side were confirmed champions and on the night when Jordan Henderson lifted the Premier League trophy. 

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No title defence will occur this season though, amid a torrid run of form for Klopp’s side which has seen them lose their last four Premier League games – they face bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United on Sunday. 

The Liverpool manager did talk about the ‘big challenge’ needed to claim a top-four spot this season – his team are currently five points off West Ham who currently occupy fourth. 

Klopp's side have lost their last four Premier League games amid a dreadful run of form

Klopp’s side have lost their last four Premier League games amid a dreadful run of form 

‘You only have to look at the points, it’s not too far off but it’s a distance,’ Klopp added. 

‘We just have to try and win as many games as possible and we’ll see where we are at the end of the season but yes a big challenge.’

Klopp also stated he ‘doesn’t know’ if goalkeeper Alisson will play at Bramall Lane, following the tragic death of his father in Brazil this week, saying: ‘We didn’t think about that so far really.’

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The UK mental health crisis coming in Covid’s wake

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Owen O’Kane grew up well-acquainted with the psychological damage that bombs and bullets inflict on communities long after their immediate impact, having witnessed first-hand the troubles in Northern Ireland.

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Now a psychotherapist and author based in London, he is convinced that Covid-19 risks leaving similar long-term distress in its wake. In anticipation, he has given the phenomenon a name: “Post pandemic stress disorder.”

“A lot of people have been affected by trauma. Whether its PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or PPSD you won’t see the full impact at the time. You only see it a few months later. If we don’t take this seriously we are going to have a very unwell group in the population for years to come,” said O’Kane, who was formerly mental health lead for the NHS in west London.

With Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, setting out England’s gradual and cautious exit from lockdown earlier this week and the rollout of the country’s vaccination programme still going well, there are some causes for optimism.

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But O’Kane and his peers worry about the long term toll the pandemic is taking on the nation’s mental health.

Owen O’Kane: ‘If we don’t take this seriously we are going to have a very unwell group in the population for years to come’

By the middle of 2020, one in five people in the UK was suffering from depression, twice the number in 2019, according to the most recent data released by the Office for National Statistics.

The Centre for Mental Health, an independent UK charity, has predicted that this will translate into up to 10m people needing new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic. But that may be a conservative estimate given that these figures predate the latest and deadliest wave of the virus as well as a winter of intensified lockdown.

“Why I am on my soap box at the moment is that I feel all of the energy is still on getting the R (the disease’s rate of reproduction) down when we have this other pandemic brewing,” O’Kane said.

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Part of the answer, he and other specialists argued, will be in allocating sufficient resources to deal with rising demands on services. Another part, argues O’Kane, will be clinical.

“A pandemic is invisible. It’s not like bombs dropping,” he said. But cumulatively its effects are no less traumatic. “If you don’t address the underlying trauma [in patients], they will relapse,” he said.

The stress associated with home-schooling children while sustaining work, of indebtedness, loneliness, or of being forced to confront at close quarters relationships that are fatally cracked, alongside the continuous threat of the virus itself, for many people has taken a grim toll.

“When you have 120,000 families who have lost someone, many of whom have not been able to say farewell; hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses who have struggled . . . why would you not expect there to be a large number of people with psychological problems?” said Alastair Campbell, the writer and former director of communications to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair. “It would be very weird if you didn’t.”

Campbell, who published a book last year on his own experience of severe depression, is frustrated at the lack of preparation for this crisis in the making.

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“It’s not just that services are terrible in some parts of the country. It is also that the government is missing a massive opportunity,” he said, arguing that the shock of the pandemic has brought mental wellbeing to the forefront of everybody’s minds except, apparently, those in government. “They still think that if you talk about mental health it makes it worse,” he said.

The government has pledged £500m of extra spending on mental health services this year to address waiting times for specialists, which can stretch to months and more, and to invest in the workforce.

“As part of the long-term plan we have committed an additional £2.3bn a year,” said Nadine Dorries, the minister for health, suicide prevention and patient safety.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that it was vital this funding sustained increases in trained psychiatrists, and other specialists while addressing a hangover from years in which mental health has been treated as the poor cousin to its physical relative.

“There is a huge backlog of investment in the mental health estate,” he said, adding: “We need to be on the front foot around mental health in relation to Covid rather than reactive.”

That means taking into account what’s to come. While Johnson’s plan for lifting lockdown aims to remove all restrictions by the end of June, the end of economic support for workers and businesses will cause fresh anxiety.

“As some of the measures that have protected employment security and finances of those in unemployment come to an end, we are facing a cliff edge,” said Catherine Seymour from the Mental Health Foundation, the think-tank. It is calling for temporary £20 weekly increases in welfare payments to be made permanent in next week’s Budget and for a ban on evictions to be extended.

The Samaritans, often the last resort charity for people in distress, has been making similar pleas, pointing to the proven link between recession and increased suicides,

Jacqui Morrissey, the charity’s assistant director of research, said 1.7m people had called on the Samaritans for emotional support between March and December last year, a period, she said, when many people had been deprived of their usual coping mechanisms.

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It was imperative, she said, that the voluntary sector, which provides an essential supporting role to the state when it comes to mental health, remains afloat. “We need to make sure that there is a fully funded mental health renewal plan as we come out of that pandemic and that this is at the top of priorities with government working in collaboration with the sector to deliver it,” she said.





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Sunak warns of bill to be paid to tackle UK’s ‘exposed’ finances

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Rishi Sunak will use next week’s Budget to “level with people” over the “enormous strains” in Britain’s public finances, warning that, after a further injection of coronavirus support, a bill will have to be paid.

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In an interview with the Financial Times, the chancellor said there was an immediate need to spend more to protect jobs as the UK emerged from the Covid-19 threat, but he warned that Britain’s finances were now “exposed”.

“There are some people who think you can ignore the problem. And, worse, there are some people who think there isn’t a problem at all. I don’t think that,” Sunak said.

The Treasury has been spooked by recent financial market turmoil, which has seen 10-year UK government borrowing costs rise half a percentage point over the past month.

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The effect on the government’s debt interest will not be included in next week’s forecasts because it has happened too recently, but that did not diminish the chancellor’s concern.

Sunak said: “Because we now have far more debt than we used to and because interest rates . . . at least a month or two ago were exceptionally low, that means we remain exposed to changes in those rates.”

He added that the UK’s exposure to a rise of 1 percentage point across all interest rates was £25bn a year to the government’s cost of servicing its debt.

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“That why I talk about levelling with people about the public finances [challenges] and our plans to address them,” Sunak said.

He urged his Tory colleagues to support his tough message on public finances, seeking to create a clear dividing line with Labour at the next election.

“All of us as Conservative MPs, not just in this election, are elected by the British people because people trust us with the nation’s public finances, they trust us with their money, they trust us to run the economy responsibly,” Sunak said.

The chancellor was unwilling to be drawn on specific tax measures he would announce in the Budget, but is looking at increasing corporation tax rates as a first step to repairing the public finances.

Sunak is braced for Conservative criticism of tax rises. Mark Spencer, the chief whip, has warned Tory MPs they could be thrown out of the parliamentary party if they vote against any Budget measures.

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The chancellor will not announce any new targets for government borrowing or debt in the Budget because he does not see the Covid-19 crisis as over yet.

To boost jobs and reduce the rise in unemployment as coronavirus support is phased out, he announced an early package of measures to bolster training and apprenticeships on Friday evening ahead of Wednesday’s statement.

The Treasury said the chancellor would increase the temporary cash bonus to businesses taking on an apprentice to £3,000 and extend the scheme from April to the end of September. The money would be available for all hires and not just for younger people aged 16 to 24.

Apprentices will also be able to be attached to an agency working with more than one employer rather than a single company in what the government describes as a “flexi-apprenticeship programme”. It hopes that this will prove attractive to industries such as the film and TV sectors where apprentices might be able to gain experience across a number of different of productions.

But this will form only part of the chancellor’s strategy to spend big in the short-term before turning the tables and raising taxes later.

“I stood up at the beginning of this [coronavirus] thing and said I will do whatever it takes to protect the British people through this crisis and I remain committed to that,” Sunak told the FT, claiming the Tories were “now the party of public services”.

“We went big, we went early, but there is more to come and there will be more to come in the Budget. But there is a challenge [in the public finances] and I want to level with people about the challenge.”



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BoE chief economist warns against complacency over inflation

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Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane has warned of the risk of central bank complacency on inflation as the UK economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

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He compared inflation to a tiger that had been stirred by ultra-loose monetary policy and said there was a “tangible risk” that it would prove “more difficult to tame” than policymakers expected.

In a recorded speech published on Friday, he said that there were risks to tightening monetary policy before the economy fully recovered. But for him, “the greater risk at present is of central bank complacency allowing the inflationary ‘big’ cat out of the bag”.

Inflation has been subdued in the UK, as it has in many other countries during the pandemic, because of a drop in consumer demand.

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The BoE’s Monetary Policy Committee foresees UK inflation remaining around its target level this year, with the risks around this projection considered large but balanced.

Deputy governor Dave Ramsden on Friday said risks to UK inflation were broadly balanced. “I see inflation expectations — whatever measure you look at — well anchored,” he said following a speech given online.

Haldane acknowledged that “disinflationary forces” could return if the impact of the virus proved more persistent than expected, but that in his judgment the risks to inflation “are skewed to the upside, rather than being balanced”.

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Inflation could overshoot the BoE inflation target of 2 per cent for a sustained period as “resurgent demand bumps up against constrained supply”, he said.

As much as £400bn of household and company savings would be seeking a new home by the middle of this year — equivalent to about a third of annual economic output, Haldane added.

“This would provide a very significant degree of additional demand stimulus to an already rapidly recovering economy,” he said.

He also noted that, unlike in previous economic crises, household incomes were likely to have been resilient, thanks to the government support scheme, suggesting earlier upward price pressure when the economy recovers.

While there are reasons to expect a rapid recovery in demand, supply could be limited by factors such as depressed investment. The MPC’s projections assume about a 6.5 per cent hit to the capital stock from the pandemic which will serve to tighten supply-side constraints.

Haldane said the hit to capital could be larger if companies’ risk appetite remained subdued or if debts accumulated during the crisis acted as a drag on investment, adding to the upward price pressure.

A shrinking proportion of the population of working age is also a longer-term factor adding to the upward pressure on UK inflation.

If the pool of workers relative to the overall population continued to shrink, it “would turn the demographic tailwinds of the past decade into a headwind looking ahead, constraining supply and potentially amplifying inflationary forces”, said Haldane.

He added that Covid-19 provided a further impetus towards localisation, and it was possible that trends in globalisation could even go into reverse in the period ahead, increasing “inflationary impetus”.



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