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6 November 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 11:19am

John Lewis chooses not to furlough workers – exposing Rishi Sunak’s big mistake

The department store is not applying for the Job Retention Scheme designed to protect workers amid the pandemic.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In the same week as announcing 1,500 job cuts, John Lewis has decided not to use the furlough scheme, the New Statesman can reveal.

Despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing a surprise five-month extension of the Job Retention Scheme on 5 November – in order to keep people employed on 80 per cent of their wages until next March – the department store will not be applying for it.

A John Lewis spokesperson tells the New Statesman that the business is keeping “the situation under review”, and will also be transferring John Lewis staff to work in Waitrose supermarkets, which are run by the John Lewis partnership.

The company is cutting 1,500 jobs from its head office – on top of the 1,390 roles already lost amid pandemic disruption this year, as eight John Lewis department stores and four Waitrose supermarkets closed down.

The New Statesman has asked John Lewis for the reason behind the decision not to apply for furlough, but has not received an answer to that specific question. We understand that John Lewis’s executive team met last night and made the decision. According to one source, workers were told that a second round of furlough was not considered financially viable, but this is unconfirmed.

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“I’d already been looking for other work, but this does make it seem more urgent,” says a John Lewis partnership shop floor staff member who wishes to remain anonymous. “If the partnership isn’t willing to take government support, literally to retain jobs, it doesn’t instil confidence that we’re going to be here this time next year. It’s sad.

“Everyone on the floor knows furlough would be the right call to make, so whether it’s to protect the partnership’s image or otherwise, it just feels like there’s something else going on.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak has completed his gradual U-turn on the furlough scheme]

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What is clear is that Rishi Sunak’s last-minute U-turn on extending the furlough scheme came too late for some workers. Ever since his announcement of a far less generous Job Support Scheme in the penultimate week of September in his winter plan, Sunak has resisted pressure to extend the original generosity of the furlough scheme beyond its 31 October deadline – despite repeatedly adjusting the winter plan.

When the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced England’s four-week lockdown on 31 October, he said the furlough scheme would continue for the month of November: an announcement that came just hours before it was due to end. Five days later, Sunak announced its extension until March.

All these damaging delays and last-minute changes have left workers, who may have been able to go on furlough with more notice, facing redundancies. Many businesses began redundancy consultations in September to meet the original October deadline for the end of the furlough scheme, meaning hundreds of thousands of workers will have already been let go.

On Wednesday 4 November, before the furlough extension, more than 7,200 job losses were announced from a range of British companies, including Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Clarks, Lloyds bank and a British Airways caterer.

[See also: Government “advice” sent to shielders less than three hours before lockdown​]