Marriott Hotels fined £18.4m for data breach that hit millions

The UK’s data privacy watchdog has fined the Marriott Hotels chain £18.4m for a major data breach that may have affected up to 339 million guests.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said names, contact information, and passport details may all have been compromised in a cyber-attack.

The breach included seven million guest records for people in the UK.

The ICO said the company failed to put appropriate safeguards in place but acknowledged it had improved.

The first part of the cyber-attack happened in 2014, affecting the Starwood Hotels group, which was acquired by Marriott two years later.

But until 2018, when the problem was first noticed, the attacker continued to have access to all affected systems, including:

On that basis, the ICO said Marriott had failed to protect personal data as required by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In some ways you can feel sorry for Marriott.

In all the boardroom discussions about the company’s takeover of Starwood, I bet it never realised that a hacker was already lurking inside the valuable databases they were buying.

The cyber-criminals had been in the systems for years, and were effectively thrown into the merger deal without Marriott having a clue.

Herein lies the issue, though – it seems the larger hotel didn’t check what it was buying.

The ICO report makes clear Marriott beefed up the security of Starwood’s IT systems far too late and the hackers had free reign to move around, cherry-picking the data that would sell best on criminal forums.

The fine is nothing like the £99m the ICO planned to issue, but it’s still a massive deterrent for future companies.

It may make executives planning their next big mergers look more carefully and cautiously at the databases they’re about to acquire.

“Millions of people’s data was affected by Marriott’s failure,” commissioner Elizabeth Denham said.

“Thousands contacted a helpline and others may have had to take action to protect their personal data because the company they trusted it with had not.”

Different types of data were exposed for different guests, and some of the estimated 339 million may have represented duplicate records for repeat guests, making an exact count impossible.

Despite imposing a fine, the ICO acknowledged that Marriott had acted quickly once it found the flaw, and had improved its systems since.

Eurozone bounces back to economic growth

The economies of the eurozone bounced back in the third quarter of the year, according to new official figures.

Economic activity for the region as a whole was 12.7% higher than in the previous three months.

But the growth was not enough to reverse the declines in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic.

The outlook for the end of the year is further weakness caused by a renewed surge in Covid cases and tighter official restrictions.

NatWest warns of challenging times amid surprise profit

NatWest posted an unexpected profit but warned of “challenging times” ahead for the business.

It posted a £355m profit before tax for July to September. City-watchers had anticipated that the bank would have set aside more money for bad loans.

The lender, formerly known as Royal Bank of Scotland, put by £254m for expected loan losses.

The four largest UK banks all set aside less than expected as government help kept businesses and households afloat.

But some of the largest assistance programmes, such as the furlough scheme, is due to come to an end.

“Challenging times lie ahead, especially as the current government support schemes come to an end and as new Covid-19 related restrictions are introduced,” said NatWest chief executive Alison Rose.

In common with most lenders, the bank’s share price has dropped in recent months.

Donald Brown, senior investment manager at Brewin Dolphin, said: “The market clearly remains pessimistic about NatWest’s immediate prospects, with the shares still around 50% below where they started the year.”

As well as the risk of bad loans, lenders are under pressure in the shape of the difference they make between borrowing from depositors and lending to borrowers.

The Bank of England cut rates to anew low of 0.1% in March and some analysts think negative rates could be on the horizon.

That means smaller margins as the central bank demands that loan rates are chopped.

NatWest’s net interest margin dipped slightly to 1.65%

Covid: The 400,000 seafarers who cant go home

When his ship pulled into anchorage at Santos in Brazil last week, Alona had been at sea so long, he had missed his own wedding.

The assistant engineer from the Philippines had been on the same ship for nearly 16 months, despite three attempts to go home. He had not set foot on land since a brief shore leave in August 2019 and he almost never had a day off.

“I have daily jobs and reports which require me every day to work. Even on the weekends,” he said.

Nine other crew members had been on board for just as long. It had taken a mental toll on everyone. Tempers sometimes frayed and morale was low.

An estimated 400,000 seafarers are waiting to go home. Most are trapped on ships because port authorities fear new Covid-19 infections and don’t want them ashore. In some countries, crew changes are banned outright, while in others restrictions make them difficult to carry out.

Many are stuck on ships, often beyond the maximum of 11 months allowed under international treaty. Unions say it’s a violation of their rights or even tantamount to forced labour. Some multinationals are also unhappy, because they fear industrial action could bring international shipping to a grinding halt.

A recent survey of 926 seafarers by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), provided exclusively to the BBC, found that 59% of respondents have had to extend their contract because they have been unable to arrange a crew change.

The survey also found that 26% had been aboard for more than the legal maximum, with some on board for as long as 18 months.

Seafarers are legally allowed to stop working if they go beyond their contract. In practice, that rarely happens, and for good reason.

“If we are in the middle of the sea far from any land, there will be a chance that our vessel may sink or an accident may happen which may harm human life which would be a bigger problem for us. So I still work whether I like it or not to keep our ship working,” said Alona, who’s using a fake name because he’s worried he won’t get work if he’s identified.

Many are worried about fatigue and risks to safety. Asked to rate from zero to 10 the possibility of an “accident that could harm human life, property or the marine environment due to tiredness or fatigue”, 71% chose five or higher, while 15% rated the possibility at 10.

Worse still, 8% said they weren’t being paid and 30% said they had unmet medical needs.

The head of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, Bjørn Højgaard, says he has heard of seafarers pulling teeth out because they couldn’t leave the ship to go to a dentist.

In one particularly bad incident, Russian seafarer Alexey Kulibaba had a stroke, but was denied an emergency evacuation for several days after Indonesian authorities refused the ship permission to dock because of Covid-19 restrictions. One side of his body is still not working properly, and he still needs help with basic tasks.

His wife Oxana described the event as a tragedy, because a quicker response might have meant a better chance of recovery.

“We’ve never had that before. It’s kind of the unwritten rule that if a seafarer is sick, you dispatch medical assistance. That’s probably the most damning indictment of what’s happened with lockdown culture,” says ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton.

As Alona waited at anchorage on the Cape Henry, a 190m long bulk carrier filled with rock salt, there were murmurings among the crew that their manning agency had finally arranged their repatriation. After similar attempts in China, Korea and Chile, he didn’t want to get his hopes up.

As the ship moved from anchorage into port, there was bad news. The manning agency didn’t complete paperwork in time and the replacement crew didn’t make their flight out of Manila. They had been rebooked for the following day, so there was still hope. But he was worried.

His story is not unusual. Crew changes are always a “logistical puzzle”, according to Mr Højgaard – who is also the Chief Executive of Anglo-Eastern, a manning agency that currently has 16,000 seafarers on ships around the world.

Travel restrictions make it harder still. Crews have trouble leaving their home countries and there are fewer flights. Port restrictions change quickly. Even those allowing crew changes often have requirements that can be difficult to meet in the short time a ship is in port.

“We all thought we’d turned the tide at the end of July, then we lost Singapore and Hong Kong at the same time,” says Mr Højgaard. New infections among seafarers had set nerves on edge in both cities, and the authorities were reluctant to take chances.

It now costs roughly twice as much as usual to change a crew. Mr Højgaard suspects some smaller shipping lines and agencies might delay, hoping the next port will be cheaper or that more flights might open up, bringing down costs.

Alona works on a ship because the pay is better than it is at home. But the job requires long stretches away from home.

He admits his fiancée is very patient. He doesn’t like leaving home for long stretches at sea and he wants to do something else when he’s more financially secure.

“My plan is to make a lot of money while I’m still young, then start a business, so I don’t have to return to the sea,” he said. But if the job wasn’t meant to be forever, it was sure starting to feel like it.

There was finally some good news. The replacement crew had departed from the Philippines. If they tested negative when they arrived in Brazil, Alona and his crew mates would finally head home. A positive test might still dash someone’s hopes.

“We are anxious. But the spirits are up,” he said.

Seafarers have helped to keep the global economy running throughout the pandemic. But it has been a balancing act, according to Marc Engel, Unilever’s chief supply chain officer.

Unilever operates in 190 countries and has factories in 70. So when China went into lockdown, it found inorganic chemicals elsewhere and in some cases reformulated products. Then, when Europe and India shut down, production moved back to China.

Backup plans make a difference, but they don’t work without shipping. For example, cocoa, soybean oil, vanilla and palm oil are all shipped from different parts of the world before they’re made into soap or ice cream – which are then shipped elsewhere.

“I always say that soybean oil doesn’t grow in the UK. So at the end of the day, you need a global supply chain,” Mr Engel said.

He’s worried that the global supply chain might no longer work if unions take industrial action. Along with Unilever, 30 other large consumer goods companies recently signed a letter to the UN Secretary General outlining their concerns about “a major disruption of global supply chains” and the inadvertent creation of “a modern form of forced labour”.

“I think we could be at a tipping point if the international unions are basically saying enough is enough. And you’re hearing signals that that moment is close,” said Mr Engel.

Unions have already taken action in Australia, where two ships have been detained by the authorities after unions reported them for keeping seafarers beyond the legal limit. But Mr Højgaard thinks simple exhaustion might be just as worrying.

“People will have mental health issues, or will be so fatigued they’ll say, ‘I can’t do this any more.’ It only takes one or two people, then you’re not in compliance with your minimum safe manning certificate and the ship will stop.”

Still, governments and health departments are justifiably concerned about the pandemic. And many are unlikely to budge.

The state of Western Australia – where there have been only 700 cases in total – tightened restrictions recently, after four ships arrived with positive cases in the space of three weeks. In one case, a livestock carrier had 25 cases.

The Minister for Ports, Alannah MacTiernan, is not convinced Western Australia should lower its guard. Too many shipping firms don’t take quarantine seriously enough, she says, singling out the Philippines and the Middle East for criticism.

“People have not been taking this seriously and they have Mickey Mouse quarantine,” she said.

She says the shipping industry should instead look at its own operators and that crew changes should instead happen in the seafarers’ home country.

While it might seem like a blunt rebuke, businesses, unions and the shipping industry agree in many respects. There have been cases where seafarers have breached quarantine before boarding. And there have been agencies that have been caught falsifying Covid test results.

There’s broad agreement that a consistent standard might help. Everybody agrees on the need for proper infection controls. The issue is ensuring everyone adheres to them. Ports are more likely to open up when there’s a trustworthy process.

Singapore – which has facilitated crew changes for more than 40,000 seafarers since March – is seen as a possible model. All crews must isolate for two weeks and have a test from an approved testing centre before they arrive to sign on in Singapore, where they stay isolated in floating accommodation for up to 72 hours before they board.

The ITF now has a pilot program in Manila, where it is providing rooms for seafarers before they fly out to ports like Singapore. They stay in a room for two weeks, with a test at the beginning and the end, and the process is properly audited.

Alona finally made it to dry land on Monday. Along with his crew mates, he disembarked and went to a hotel to wait for his flight the next day. He was glad to touch land for the first time in over a year. But he was nervous too.

Ironically, after 16 months at sea where Covid-19 wasn’t really an issue, he was for the first time faced with the pandemic that had kept him there. He disembarked in Brazil, where there are currently more than five million cases.

Still, there was plenty to celebrate.

“I am very much happy and excited. Like I said, this is the best feeling for a seafarer,” he said.

Japans first passenger jet in decades put on hold

Plans for Japan’s first homegrown passenger plane in more than five decades have been frozen as the airline industry suffers from a deep drop in demand.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the company behind the new SpaceJet, is cutting its budget for the project.

Long-delayed, the Mitsubishi SpaceJet has missed six delivery deadlines going back to 2013.

Test flights in the US were suspended this year due to the virus pandemic.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said on Friday it would freeze development of its SpaceJet regional jet to bolster other parts of its business.

The company posted a 62.5% fall in its second quarter operating profit.

The SpaceJet suspension will help it lower costs by 120bn yen (£900m), the company said.

The decision to cut back on funding was prompted by the downturn in the airline industry brought on by coronavirus travel curbs.

Airlines around the world have been forced to shrink operations to survive.

While Japan has seen some rebound in domestic demand helped by government travel subsidies, international travel is still a fraction of what it was before the outbreak.

Japan’s biggest carrier ANA Holdings was due to be the new plane’s first customer.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is a key supplier to commercial aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus who dominate the industry.

The Japanese government encouraged the SpaceJet programme in a bid to establish itself as a global commercial plane maker.

“Airbus and Boeing have global reach. This is critical in terms of after sales service and maintenance support,” said airplane expert John Strickland.

“It’s difficult for others to attempt to replicate this.”

China also has ambitions to be a major planemaker with Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac).

SpiceJet: Indian airline turns to seaplanes to boost travel

Indian airline SpiceJet is turning to seaplanes to boost travel during the pandemic downturn.

The country’s biggest regional airline has approval for 18 seaplane routes.

One of these routes is to Kevadia, the site of the world’s tallest statue – an 182-metre tribute to the country’s first home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel.

During the pandemic, SpiceJet is focusing on new sources of revenue, including transporting cargo and regional flights using smaller planes.

Airlines have struggled during the coronavirus to remain profitable and many have gone bust, including the UK’s Flybe and Virgin Australia. Many others are on the brink of survival and have made severe job cuts.

Some airlines have been looking at alternative ways of generating revenue. These include flights to nowhere and airplane meal delivery.

SpiceJet chairman Ajay Singh said the seaplanes would help improve regional connectivity – an initiative being encourage by the Indian government – “without the high cost of building airports and runways”, thanks to the planes being able to take-off and land both on small water bodies and short airstrips.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to join the first flights from Ahmedabad to Kevadia on Saturday, the 145th anniversary of Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth.

The landmark built in his honour, referred to as the Statue of Unity, sits in the state of Gujarat and is double the height of the Statue of Liberty.

The 30-minute flights will operate through its subsidiary Spice Shuttle and start from 1,500 rupees (£15.40) one-way.

SpiceJet will be using Twin Otter 300 seaplanes, built by the former British plane maker de Havilland, which is now owned by Canada-based Viking Air. They can seat up to 19 people, including passengers and crew.

“The Twin Otter is very popular among smaller operators, and is frequently used as a seaplane, most notably in the Maldives,” said Greg Waldron at FlightGlobal magazine.

“Its small size allows it to reach locations that would not be accessible or practical for larger aircraft.”

SpiceJet started conducting seaplane trials in India in 2017 in Nagpur, Guwahati and Mumbai. It has been exploring air connectivity through water bodies such as rivers or inland waterways.

During national lockdowns in India, SpiceJet remained active flying repatriation flights for more than 1m Indians.

Job Support Scheme: How do new post-furlough changes work?

Firms struggling with Covid restrictions are getting more government support, to help them keep on workers.

Staff at pubs and restaurants hit by household mixing rules in tier two areas are among those who will benefit.

The changes are now part of the government’s Job Support Scheme (JSS), which replaces furlough from November.

UK firms can get extra support if they have to close as a direct result of coronavirus restrictions.

For example, in England some businesses in tier three “very high risk areas” have to close – including pubs and bars that don’t serve substantial meals, and betting shops. In Scotland, cinemas and other entertainment venues must close in level three areas such as Glasgow and Edinburgh from 2 November.

Workers will be paid 67% of their wages – up to a maximum of £2,083.33 a month – through the JSS.

You must be off work for a minimum of seven days to be eligible. Your employer doesn’t have to pay towards your salary.

Liverpool City Region, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and Warrington are all in tier three, with Nottinghamshire due to join them on Friday and West Yorkshire on Monday.

Areas like London and Essex are now under ”high alert” tier two rules. Places like pubs and cafes have been less busy because household mixing indoors is banned.

Firms like these, which can open but only have enough work for employees to return part-time, can also get help under the JSS, regardless of which tier they are in.

Staff have to be paid by their employer to work a minimum 20% of their hours per month.

The employer must pay an extra 4% of total wages to cover some of the hours not worked, and the government will pay 49% of the total salary to cover hours not worked.

So, overall the worker would get at least 73% of salary. The maximum contribution the government will make is £1,541.75.

To qualify, you must have been on your work’s payroll since 23 September.

You can be moved on and off the scheme, or work different hours, but each working arrangement must cover at least seven days.

You cannot be made redundant or put on notice until after the JSS grant stops being claimed. You will still be entitled to claim free or tax-free childcare or parental pay such as maternity leave, even if your income falls below the minimum threshold.

Employers can submit JSS claims from 8 December, and will be reimbursed by the government for its share after salaries have been paid.

The scheme will run for at least six months from 1 November.

A grant available to self-employed people affected by coronavirus has also been doubled to 40% of profits, with a maximum grant of £3,750 over a three-month period.

Extra help is also being offered to firms, depending on which tier they are in.

The UK government will also give firms:

The Job Support Scheme has replaced furlough, which was designed to help people who couldn’t do their jobs and prevent mass redundancies during lockdown.

Under the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme, to give furlough its official title, workers placed on leave received 80% of their pay, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.

Employers now have to pay 20% of the wages of furloughed workers, plus their National Insurance and pension contributions.

How do I find a new job during Covid and which sectors are hiring?

It’s a tough time in the jobs market, as firms shed staff or freeze recruitment to cut costs.

UK unemployment hit its highest level in more than three years in October, with redundancies at the highest level since 2009.

But online job vacancies are now being posted at 70% of last year’s average, the highest since the pandemic hit.

To maximise your chances, one strategy is to create an appealing online profile so that recruiters and companies will approach you, while you also actively apply for jobs.

Consider your core skills, rather than hunting for a specific job title, suggests Corinne Mills, managing director of Personal Career Management.

For example, if you work in retail customer service, this could translate to other people-facing roles such as sales.

She suggests searching for these core skills online, to see which jobs come up, while also listing them on your professional profiles.

Recruiters often search for people based on a list of desired skills, so this will make you more visible.

Many companies list jobs on their own website or on recruitment sites.

You can also sign up with a general or specialist recruitment agency.

If you want to work for a particular company, check if they hire directly or through a recruiter.

And if you want a specific job, be proactive and contact someone doing that role to discover how they got there.

Professional networks can also be useful. These could be LinkedIn or Facebook groups, or industry organisations, where jobs and events are posted and advice is available.

Some industries and employers have even set up virtual networking events and job fairs.

With thousands of people applying for some roles, your personal network should be your first port of call, Corinne suggests.

Friends, family and acquaintances will collectively know hundreds of people, and some should know of businesses which are hiring.

Many employers like a personal recommendation and you may hear about roles before they are advertised.

When compiling your CV, emphasise your skills which a prospective employer wants, rather than listing things you have already done.

List past achievements clearly. For example, you finished a recent project on time and within budget, or brought in new clients.

Asking someone else to read your application helps spot any spelling or grammatical errors that could mean your CV goes straight in the bin.

Show enthusiasm and give reasons why you want to work for this employer specifically.

Tailor your CV and cover letter for each application, which is time-consuming but more likely to result in a job, suggests Amy Golding, head of technology recruitment firm Opus Talent Solutions.

She adds: ”If you don’t hear back within three days, call them – because that makes it harder for them to ignore you!”

The national careers service offers many tools. These include a skills assessment, a search tool for courses, and help with CVs. The government’s ”find a job” website also lists vacancies.

Gaining new skills could help you move into a new sector and shows employers you’ve been productive during lockdown. Many universities and other institutions are currently offering free training courses.

For example, the University of Edinburgh is offering free short courses in fields such as Data Ethics and AI, the University of Oxford has a free course on economic development, and the Open University offers many free courses too.

Many other platforms, such as Codeacademy and Coursera, offer online coding tutorial, some of which are free.

The Prince’s Trust is offering free personal development sessions to help 18-30 year-olds get into the health and social care sector. The charity offers mentoring, CV help, and can match jobseekers with suitable local employers.

In the week to 23 October, the volume of online job adverts posted was at 70% of the 2019 average, the highest since the end of March.

Some sectors have recovered more strongly than others. Health and social care vacancies are now above 2019 levels, data suggests, while funding has begun for hundreds of nurse apprenticeships in England.

By contrast, the rate of catering and hospitality vacancies is down two-thirds on last year’s average.

Jobseekers should be ”strategic” and target sectors experiencing job shortages as well as those that are growing, says Gerwyn Davies, analyst at human resources body the CIPD.

The shortage occupation list – used to offer work visas to people moving to the UK – quickly shows where workers are needed, and includes fields like engineering, web programming and graphic design.

Now could be a good time to join the public sector, he suggests, with initiatives like the national retraining scheme helping people move into areas like social work, teaching and healthcare.

Tech recruiter Amy suggests applying to companies which are fully digital, regardless of the role you want, as the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online working.

These could be online retail companies like Amazon, which is recruiting for 7,000 UK jobs by the end of 2020 – or tech companies working in education or healthcare.

Covid: What impact has the furlough scheme had?

It’s been a little over seven months since the government pledged to subsidise the wages of employees hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Whatever your memories of the occasion, it was a significant moment. The UK’s long lockdown had not yet begun, but it was clearly on the way.

On that same date, 20 March, cafes, pubs and restaurants were ordered to close, while three days later, people were ordered to stay at home and non-essential shops were shut.

It was a defining event for Chancellor Rishi Sunak, too, as he unveiled his “unprecedented” furlough scheme.

Drawn up after lengthy talks with business groups and union leaders, it committed the government to paying 80% of the salaries of staff who were kept on by their employer while unable to work, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month.

Under the furlough scheme, which ends on 31 October, around 9.6 million people have benefited at one time or another, with a steep take-up in the first few months.

But that doesn’t mean the government was ever paying that many people’s wages at any given time.

According to data from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the number of jobs furloughed peaked at 8.9 million on 8 May. It then fell to 6.8 million by 30 June and an estimated 5.1 million at the end of July, by which time lockdown restrictions had eased.

Since then, it has shrunk to about 3.3 million – but that still represents 12% of the UK’s workforce. At the same time, those who remained in work saw their hours decline sharply.

In his announcement in March, the chancellor extended sympathy to those fearful of losing their livelihoods.

“To all those at home right now, anxious about the days ahead, I say this: you will not face this alone,” he said.

Although he has since become one of the country’s best-known politicians and currently enjoys one of the highest net approval ratings in opinion polls, Mr Sunak was fairly new in his post at the time.

A week and a half earlier, in his first Budget, he had announced a £30bn package to boost the economy and get the country through the virus outbreak.

Initially, that seemed like a lot. But the chancellor’s Job Retention Scheme, to give it its official name. along with other support measures, would end up incurring a far bigger bill.

So far, coronavirus has cost the government more than £200bn, with about £40bn spent on the furlough scheme alone.

As a result, government borrowing has increased substantially to cover the cost of that economic support.

Looking back at that original announcement, it’s clear that the government still had only a vague notion of how big the scheme was likely to become.

Mr Sunak said it would last until the end of May, but would be extended for longer “if necessary” – and so it proved to be.

The scheme was then prolonged for another four months, but since August, employers have had to contribute to the cost, leading to a big drop in the number of people on furlough.

Even after those changes, more women than men have been furloughed.

Younger people, who are more likely to work in the sectors of the economy worst hit by the coronavirus lockdown measures, have also accounted for a large proportion of those on furlough.

Even now, with the scheme coming to an end, there are many who think it should have been kept going even longer.

But Mr Sunak repeatedly refused to consider the possibility, saying: “I don’t think the right thing to do is to endlessly extend furlough.”

From next month, it will be replaced with the less generous Job Support Scheme, which is expected to cost the government an estimated £300m a month.

Obviously some sectors of the economy made more use of the furlough scheme than others.

Non-essential shops were closed at the height of the lockdown, so retailers made the biggest claim on the government’s resources.

And with pubs and restaurants particularly badly affected by coronavirus curbs, the hospitality industry also saw a high number of workers furloughed.

People working in the arts, entertainment and other leisure activities were also more likely to find themselves on furlough than those in other walks of life.

But as analysts say, the scheme was designed to keep people connected to jobs that would return after the pandemic peak passed. And many jobs in those areas have either not returned or are still threatened by local lockdowns.

As the end of the furlough scheme approached, there was a notable increase in the number of workers made redundant, with the total climbing to its highest level in eight years.

Influential think tank the Resolution Foundation has described the furlough scheme as “a very successful and well-implemented policy intervention”.

“It has supported household incomes in the face of an unprecedented shock and maintained the crucial attachment between employees and their employer,” the foundation added.

But as the scheme draws to a close, it’s still an open question how history will judge it.

Already it has drawn fire from the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which has spoken dismissively of “hastily drawn up economic support schemes” that provided “unacceptable room for fraud against taxpayers”.

HMRC, which administered the furlough scheme, has suggested that up to 10% of the money delivered by the scheme to mid-August – £3.5bn – may have been paid out in fraud or error.

Apart from that, there is the issue of whether it genuinely safeguarded viable jobs or merely delayed the inevitable disappearance of unviable ones.

The chancellor has said that not every job can be saved and has urged those affected to retrain – saying that “everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality”.

But are there jobs available for those who follow his advice? The number of vacancies has fallen sharply during the pandemic – and although there are signs of recovery, the figures suggest that not enough new jobs are being created quickly enough.

Ultimately, the verdict on the furlough scheme may have to await the passing of the pandemic – and that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Furlough: In limbo or one long garden party?

When large parts of the economy were suddenly mothballed in March, the government stepped in with a scheme to pay 80% of the wages of people who could no longer go to work. At its peak nearly a third of the UK workforce were on furlough.

While for a lucky few it felt like an unexpected holiday, others were in limbo, robbed of a sense of purpose and belonging. Some had a job to go back to. Some didn’t.

When Flora Blaythwayt’s employer, a supplier of condiments to restaurants and hotels, told her she was being furloughed, she had to go away and look up what the word meant.

“I thought, is this it, is this the chop?” she says.

Being paid most of her salary certainly made things easier. But she had just come out of a relationship and was living on her own in London.

“I felt horrible, in limbo, lost and alone. I felt rudderless,” she says.

She needed something to focus on, so she went beach cleaning along the banks of the Thames, picking up scraps of plastic and other litter. Then she went home and turned the bits of old toys, sweet wrappers and bottle tops into greetings cards.

“I was distracting myself, doodling around, getting the creative juices flowing.”

She gave the cards to friends and sold some on the e-commerce site Etsy. Then bigger retailers started to show an interest. What started as a wholesome activity to get her through lockdown, was starting to look like an opportunity to start her own sustainable business.

Washed Up Cards is far from providing financial security yet, but Flora thinks her furlough, which comes to an end on Saturday, may not turn out to be the disaster she initially feared – even though she doesn’t have a job to return to.

“When I got told I was being made redundant I felt really wounded, gutted.

“But as the weeks have gone on I’ve started to think I’ll look back and be grateful for being catapulted in this new direction.”

“My furlough was fantastic. I loved it,” says Louise Solomon, who works as a chef in Brighton.

“It was a godsend, to have a few months at home, not having to get up, not having to be anywhere.”

Louise has spent the last 30 years working long shifts in professional kitchens, on her feet, with few breaks.

Her wife, a key worker, wasn’t furloughed, but with Louise at home they found they had time to garden, sort cupboards, walk the dogs together, just “relax and have fun”.

“We were able to reconnect and get to know each other again. It was a bit like a second honeymoon.”

After three months she went back to work which wasn’t easy.

“I suddenly felt older,” says Louise. “I’m 50 next year. I’ve always been able to keep up, but I felt my pace had slowed. My body hurt for the first time.”

Above all, though, she appreciates how lucky she was to have a job to go back to, given the precarious state of hospitality right now. “I appreciate for others it wasn’t like that and my heart goes out to them.”

While it was nice to spend time with the family, Julie Simmons found being sent home from her job as a hotel receptionist robbed her of her sense of purpose.

“I think it did affect how I felt about myself,” she says. “It’s nice to feel you’ve brightened someone’s day. To not have that interaction was odd.”

Julie lives near Crawley in West Sussex, an area which, thanks to its reliance on Gatwick, boasted the highest rate of furlough in the country. But it wasn’t just airline employees. Closing down air travel had a ripple effect on everything from local shops to taxi firms and hotels.

“It was very strange going from being there five or six days a week to nothing at all and not seeing anybody. Because we’re a small hotel, we’re a close team, we’re all good friends. I did miss that,” she says.

Plus there was the worry and uncertainty over whether she would have a job to come back to at all – although in the end Julie returned to work in September, albeit to a smaller team.

Julie says friends who worked through those months, teaching key workers’ children in schools for example, at least felt they were making a difference. “It’s been hard to think there are people out there risking their lives and you’re sitting at home reading a book,” she says.

In March 33-year-old James Pemblington was working in his dream job, creating audio-visual effects at Alton Towers.

Right now he should have been supervising blood-curdling screams, the smoke machines and even the stink of fake vomit for the theme park’s Halloween event.

But after five months on furlough he was made redundant.

“It’s quite heartbreaking,” he says.

However, James worked out early his role might be under threat and when the blow came he was firing on all cylinders.

First he asked a friend who does David Brent (of the Office) impersonations to make him a funny video reference. Then he had “Hire JP” T-shirts printed and distributed an edible CV – a chocolate brownie with a QR code printed on top.

He even had his details printed on the back of a lorry.

None of this landed him a job in his field, but he is about to start a short-term contract managing a new Covid testing site.

“I’m grateful for furlough because if I’d have lost my job at the start it would have been more of a shock,” he says. “The furlough period gave me time to prepare myself to hit the job market.”

He adds that if he had stayed on furlough for longer, it might have been self defeating “because in a couple of weeks there’s going to be another few thousand people applying for the same roles”.

The new job starts on Monday. In the meantime he’s putting his creative skills to good use: preparing a full-blown audio-visual extravaganza for Halloween in his front garden, complete with ghosts, eerie green lights, spooky voices and billows of smoke.

1 2 3 14