Coronavirus: ‘If you can’t work, what do you do?’

Freelance digital marketing agency owner Cathy WassellImage copyright
Cathy Wassell

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Digital marketing agency owner Cathy Wassell has been self-employed for 17 years

Many self-employed people are struggling because work is being cancelled during the coronavirus outbreak, but are excluded from financial measures announced by the UK government.

“It made me feel as if I wasn’t of any importance,” says Cathy Wassell, a freelance digital marketing agency owner based in Stratford-Upon-Avon who has run three businesses from home over the last 17 years.

“I watched the chancellor’s speech but it was glaringly obvious that there was no help for self-employed people in those packages at all.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, there are five million self-employed people in the UK, who make up 15% of the labour market.

Many self-employed workers have told the BBC their income has dropped to zero, and they do not know how they will be able to pay their bills.

“We shortly will have no income and no way of protecting ourselves financially from the expenditures we still have to make,” said Anneli Hukins, owner of Kent-based holistic health business Woodstock Holistics.

“I’ve been working as much as I can until I have to stop at the end of this week.”

Ms Wassell, who runs the agency Socially Contented, said that one of her clients had lost three contracts worth about £300,000, and would be out of business by the end of March. Other clients were late to pay her, which meant she couldn’t afford her own bills, including paying the freelancers she employs.

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Anneli Hukins

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Holistic health business owner Anneli Hukins will have to stop working to take care of her son, as schools are closing

On Tuesday, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed a £350bn stimulus package to help firms to battle the impact of coronavirus, including £330bn of business loan guarantees. It also included aid to cover a business rates holiday and grants for retailers and pubs.

However, many small businesses are run by the self-employed, working either remotely or from home, which means they cannot benefit from a business rates tax break because they don’t have a premises.

They are also not in favour of taking out loans to make ends meet.

“There’s no way that I would take the loan,” said Ms Hukins. “If I’m going to be struggling to pay off my overdraft to continue to pay for my rent and bills, then there’s no way I can keep up with the payments for the loan.”

Calum Macnee is the owner of walking tour operator Stills & Hills in Edinburgh. His income is completely dependent on tourists, a source which has now “disappeared” for the foreseeable future.

“The only option on offer in the government package to replace that lost income, appears to be to borrow money and put myself in debt, which will then need paid off, if and when the work comes back,” he said.

“I am reluctant to put myself at the mercy of the large financial institutions who seem to be the only ones guaranteed to benefit.”

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Calum Macnee

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Self-employed walking tour operator Calum Macnee doesn’t want to take on more debt

‘I have been in tears’

Joanne Wilson is a self-employed nail technician in West Sussex and runs the business Miss Jo’s Nail Co from her home.

A millennial hoping to get onto the property ladder, Ms Wilson spent several years saving up for a house deposit. But due to the coronavirus outbreak, the 16 clients she typically serves a week dwindled to four, and from next week, she will have no work at all.

“It’s looking like it’s never going to happen for me to buy a house,” she said.

“I have been in tears over the fact that I saved and saved and saved, and now I’m going to have to dive into my savings and live off it.”

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Joanne Wilson

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Joanne Wilson, owner of Miss Jo’s Nail Co in West Sussex, despairs of ever being able to step onto the housing ladder

The government has said it will make it “quicker and easier” for self-employed people affected by coronavirus to access benefits.

The chancellor said that those on contributory employment and support allowance (ESA) will be able to claim from day one, instead of day eight.

He is also temporarily removing the minimum income floor from universal credit. The minimum income floor would have taken into account how much someone would normally expect to earn in a month when calculating their entitlement to universal credit.

The removal of the minimum income floor means more will be able to claim for time they spend off work due to sickness. But what happens if you’re not sick?

Ms Wilson is exasperated by the government policy: “I’m not currently sick but I still can’t work because of this situation. If you can’t work, you can’t work. What do you do?”

‘An income crisis’

The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson together with numerous other industry bodies, calling on the government to implement a temporary income protection fund specifically for the self-employed.

According to the IPSE, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, self-employed people contributed £305bn to the British economy. The industry body says the coronavirus outbreak has caused “an income crisis” that cannot be fixed without help.

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak says those on contributory employment and support allowance (ESA) can claim from day one

IPSE’s policy director Andy Chamberlain told the BBC: “Not only are self-employed people facing personal ruin, but their businesses are also likely to fail and this will have knock-on effects for the rest of the economy.

“We’re very grateful for the measures the chancellor has already unveiled, however it is becoming increasingly clear that they will not go anywhere near far enough.”

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