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UK extends job support, tax breaks for pandemic-hit economy

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Britain's Chancellor Rishi Sunak stands with his red briefcase in front of 11 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Sunak is expected to announce billions of pounds in tax cuts and spending increases to help workers and businesses hit by the coronavirus pandemic when he delivers his budget to Parliament on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON – Britain’s treasury chief on Wednesday announced an additional 65 billion pounds ($91 billion) of support for an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, extending job support programs and temporary tax cuts to help workers and businesses in his annual budget.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that it is too soon for the government to rein in spending, saying that his plans would “protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people” through September as the government slowly lifts lockdown restrictions that have shut businesses across the U.K.

At the same time, he said Britain must be prepared to cut the deficit, announcing plans to increase the tax on corporate profits and boost revenue from personal income taxes in 2023.

“An important moment is upon us,” Sunak told the House of Commons. “A moment of challenge and of change. Of difficulties, yes, but of possibilities, too. This is a budget that meets that moment.”

U.K. public borrowing has risen to levels not seen since World War II as the government seeks to cushion the fallout from COVID-19, which has reduced gross domestic product by 10% and cost more than 700,000 people their jobs. Projections released Wednesday by the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the economy will still be 3% smaller five years from now than it would have been without the pandemic.

Sunak said government support programs have succeeded in mitigating the impact. The unemployment rate is now expected to peak at about 6.5%, rather than the 11.9% forecast last July, he said, citing estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility. The economy is forecast to grow 4% this year and 7.3% in 2022.

On Wednesday, Sunak announced plans to extend those support programs for six months. They include a furlough program, under which the government pays 80% of the wages for private employees unable to work during the pandemic, as well as grants for self-employed workers, a temporary increase in welfare payments and tax relief for businesses.

Sunak cheered business leaders by offering a tax credit of up to 130% of the money companies invest in expanding and improving their operations. Sunak said the credit is expected to increase investment by 10% or 25 billion pounds over the next two years, creating jobs and boosting economic growth.