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Exclusive: Chancellor Rishi Sunak vows to fight for Kent tourism jobs as he visits Copper Rivet Distillery in Chatham

Chancellor Rishi Sunak paid a flying visit to Kent today - and vowed to fight to protect the tourism jobs the county relies on.

In an exclusive interview with KentOnline, he said he was fully aware of the industry's importance to the Kent economy; tourism is estimated to be worth £4bn a year to the county.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak visits the Copper Rivet distillery in Chatham. Picture: HM Treasury/Simon Walker
Chancellor Rishi Sunak visits the Copper Rivet distillery in Chatham. Picture: HM Treasury/Simon Walker

Speaking on a visit to the Copper Rivet distillery in Chatham, he pledged the government will direct extra support to parts of the economy most affected by the lockdown.

One in nine people in Kent are employed in tourism.

He said: "I think because certain sectors have been most hard hit by the social distancing measures and measures we've put in place, we've directed extra support to those.

"Tourism, hospitality and leisure have been particularly hard hit. We are providing a tax cut for the entire year of up to £11 billion for that sector and provided cash grants to businesses.

"Many of those in Kent will be receiving those grants and will be a vital lifeline for rent bills and other costs.

Mr Sunak said the tourism industry in Kent will continue to be supported by the government. Picture: HM Treasury/Simon Walker
Mr Sunak said the tourism industry in Kent will continue to be supported by the government. Picture: HM Treasury/Simon Walker

"In line with the other things we're doing, it demonstrates we understand the degree of difficulty those businesses are facing."

The gin distillery has adapted during the lockdown and made hand sanitiser which has been used by the Metropolitan Police.

Mr Sunak's visit to the Towns came hours after he announced in parliament that the furlough scheme will be extended until the end of October.

The scheme, which was introduced on March 20, pays 80% of workers' salaries up to £2,500 and was initially in place until the end of July.

Mr Sunak told MPs today there will be greater flexibility from August to allow furloughed staff to begin returning to work and firms will be asked to contribute towards the payments to make sure the 80% is met. More details on the scheme are expected to be released later.

Yesterday, one of Kent's largest employers, P&O announced 1,100 jobs could be scrapped.

Asked how the government is ensuring jobs at risk of redundancy will not be lost, Mr Sunak said: "The main way furlough helps is that we pay employees wages – that removes a huge cost.

"If employees aren't able to work and businesses aren't able to sell things then that's a problem.

"It means employees can stay close to their companies and we'll cover the wages and that's how we'll protect those jobs and stop those businesses going out of business.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to extend the furlough scheme until October before visiting Medway
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to extend the furlough scheme until October before visiting Medway

"So far I think that has worked. In the round there's enormous amounts of support."

Mr Sunak also said business grants of £10,000 and £25,000, cutting and deferring taxes and loan schemes had helped.

He said the "finer complexities" of how employers will work in partnership with the government will be worked on in the coming weeks before the scheme launches in August.

Bob Russell, co-founder of the Copper Rivet distillery, said the company would have had to close had they not been able to produce hand sanitiser.

"It's a challenge because it's a huge disruption to our normal business," he told KentOnline.

"That's where the furlough scheme has been really generous for small businesses like ours.

Copper Rivet co-founder Bob Russell. Picture: Tony Jones
Copper Rivet co-founder Bob Russell. Picture: Tony Jones

"Our sales to the on trade like pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars came to a grinding halt."

Bosses have been forced to close the coffee shop and restaurant side of the business with 15 staff on furlough.

Mr Russell said had they not made their own raw alcohol on site to make sanitiser and were reliant on importing it for their other products, the business would have closed.

It has even employed a new distiller to increase production from one shift a day to three shifts 24 hours a day for five days per week.

"We spent the best of two to three weeks to make a recipe that was compliant with World Health Organisation and also something pleasant to use.

"We would have had to close completely otherwise because if you can't sell your product it's no fun."

"Our sales to the on trade like pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars came to a grinding halt."

The company is still producing gin which Mr Russell says is the "mainstay of the business" but had been struggling to sell to its main clients in the hospitality trade.

"It's a two-edged sword. On one side we've furloughed staff and on the other we're very busy. We're lucky.

The business had been planning to launch a new whisky in June but has been pushed back indefinitely due to the pandemic.

Mr Russell with distillery workers Abhi Banik, Sergio Penades and Harrison Lambert. Picture: Tony Jones
Mr Russell with distillery workers Abhi Banik, Sergio Penades and Harrison Lambert. Picture: Tony Jones

"It's matured and is ready and is a beautiful product and would love to be able to sell it," Mr Russell said.

"But we can't sell it because we're not able to retail and wholesale because our customer base is closed."

Business leaders in Kent have reacted with relief at the announcement, but some sat it is merely a "sticking plaster".

Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, echoing comments made by the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "The extension of the Job Retention Scheme will come as a huge help and a huge relief for businesses across the UK.

"The Chancellor is once again listening to what we’ve been saying, and the changes planned will help businesses bring their people back to work through the introduction of a part-time furlough scheme."

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