The government is reportedly considering a proposal to give every adult a £500 voucher as part of plans to rescue the economy, which faces its deepest recession in a century.
It has been put forward by the Resolution Foundation think tank as one of a number measures to get people spending again and save jobs.
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The idea is simple: Lots of people are spending less money at the moment, either because their income has fallen, they are worried about their finances or catching the virus, or simply because lots of places they would normally spend their cash have been closed.
Non-essential shops reopened three weeks ago but we’ve only been making about half of the number of trips to shops that we did before.
Many of us are out of the habit of going shopping and there are concerns we won’t get back into it.
That’s very bad news for the country’s high streets and shopping centres, as well as the millions of people who work in them or are in jobs supported by them.
There have been some pretty dire forecasts of job losses in the past couple of weeks – many of these are predicted to be in the retail and hospitality sectors.
The Resolution Foundation wants to give consumers a jolt into action with a “high street voucher”. The government would give each adult £500 and allocate £250 for each child.
The vouchers would only be able to be spent in the parts of the economy most in need of support right now such as bricks-and-mortar stores (not online) and even pubs and restaurants.
Other countries, including the US, which is not normally known for government generosity, have given millions of citizens cash transfers directly into bank accounts to help save their own economies.
The Resolution Foundation believes vouchers would be more effective than cash transfers because they target the spending where it’s needed and because people can’t simply put the money away.
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Bank of England data show that we have collectively put away tens of billions of pounds during this crisis so far, partly because of “enforced saving”, meaning we have had fewer opportunities to spend money because of lockdown measures.
Some of this may have come from the government via the furlough scheme and other grants which have gone to people who did not need it immediately because they have been able to quite drastically reduced their spending.
The savings accounts and pensions of relatively well-off people are amongst the last places that the government wants public money to be going.
A high street voucher, by contrast, would be “use it or lose it”, meaning you’d have a set period to spend it before it expires. You would not be able to save it.
There is an argument that people could simply use the voucher to cover the costs of things they already planned to buy, but the data shows that many of us simply aren’t making a lot of those purchases yet, and evidence from other similar schemes suggests vouchers could encourage additional spending.
It is hoped it will also boost consumer confidence get us back into the habit of shopping on the high street again.
That could help save hundreds of thousand of jobs in retail and hospitality, many of which are low-paid and are at imminent risk as the furlough scheme winds down.