The economic emergency caused by coronavirus has “only just begun”, Rishi Sunak warned in his spending review as he announced plans to borrow a peacetime record of almost £400 billion to combat the worst recession in more than 300 years.
The Chancellor told the nation he did not expect the economy to return to its pre-crisis levels until the end of 2022 and that damage was likely to last.
Official forecasts showed the UK economy is expected to shrink by 11.3% this year and that unemployment will surge to 2.6 million by mid-2021.
“This is an economic emergency and the economic damage is likely to be lasting,” Mr Sunak told MPs.
“Long-term scarring means, in 2025, the economy will be around 3% smaller than expected in the March Budget.”
The stark figures led Mr Sunak to conclude there would need to be a public sector pay freeze for millions of workers in England and a cut in the overseas aid budget.
More than a million nurses, doctors and others working in the NHS will get a rise but pay rises for the rest of the public sector will be “paused” – except for the 2.1 million workers earning below the median wage of £24,000, who will receive an increase of at least £250.
The cut to the aid budget sees the government reneging on a legal pledge and manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on development assistance.
However, the Chancellor insisted there would be no turning back from the government’s “levelling-up agenda”, announcing a new fund to pay for local projects such as bypasses, libraries and station improvements.
Barnett boost for Scotland
Scottish community groups and councils will be able to bid for a share of £800 million from the fund.
And despite the dire national finances, the Chancellor also announced Scotland will receive £2.4bn of new funding from the UK Government in 2021/22 through the Barnett formula.
This cash is in addition to the £8.2bn guaranteed to the Scottish Government this year.
Scotland will also receive a significant boost from more than £100bn of capital investment across the UK next year.
He also confirmed Scotland will benefit from a £5 billion investment in gigabit-capable broadband and 4G mobile coverage.
Farmers and fishermen will also benefit, with the Treasury allocating £570 million to support Scottish agriculture and £14 million for Scottish fisheries.
Pay freeze a ‘mistake’
Mr Sunak said: “This spending review will help people in every corner of Scotland.
“It will provide billions of pounds to fight coronavirus, deliver the people’s priorities and drive the UK’s recovery.
“The Treasury is, has been, and will always be the Treasury for the whole of the United Kingdom. And this is a spending review for the whole of the United Kingdom.”
The SNP warned, however, that it was a “mistake” to freeze pay and hit out at plans to splash almost £30 million on a festival to celebrate post-Brexit Britain.
The party’s shadow chancellor, Alison Thewliss, said: “The fact that the Tories are wasting millions on a Brexit festival while slashing public sector pay, and cutting support for the world’s poorest, tells you everything you need to know about this government’s twisted priorities.”
Nicola Sturgeon described Mr Sunak’s overseas aid cut as “a political gesture to the right wing of the Tory party”.
The First Minister said: “The cut to the overseas aid budget is a political gesture to the right wing of the Tory party, and the price of it will be paid by some of the poorest people in the world. Deplorable indeed.”