UK's Johnson criticised over lack of COVID welfare commitment

© Reuters. British PM Johnson holds media briefing on coronavirus pandemic in London

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces widespread criticism on Monday over his refusal to commit to renewing a temporary benefit increase brought in last year to help those on low incomes through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson has ordered his lawmakers to abstain on a symbolic vote in parliament later on Monday, putting a new focus on the government’s willingness to support those worst affected by the pandemic after damaging rows over free school meals and support for the self employed.

The opposition Labour Party will call for a 20 pounds ($27.08) per week increase to the Universal Credit welfare payment to be extended beyond April. The vote, due at 1900 GMT will not force the government to renew the increase.

The government says no decision has been made yet and will ask its lawmakers to abstain, accusing Labour of a political stunt. Labour and other parties say the government risks devastating the finances of those who rely on the benefit.

Some members of Johnson’s Conservative Party could also defy the order to abstain, underlining dissatisfaction over ministers’ handling of support for society’s most vulnerable.

Britain has previously announced emergency help for the economy worth 280 billion pounds, including a massive job protection scheme, and is running its largest peacetime deficit to try to soften the blow of the pandemic.

Universal Credit is Britain’s main method of supporting those who are out of work, working in low income jobs or eligible for welfare based on sickness or disability.

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The number of those receiving the payments has soared during the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, with applications almost doubling to 5.8 million from their pre-pandemic levels.

Days before the country went into a full lockdown in March 2020 finance minister Rishi Sunak announced a £1,000 per year increase to Universal Credit “to strengthen the safety net” for those affected.

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