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White House and US congress agree on £1.7 trillion virus rescue bill

The move came even as US president Donald Trump expressed hope that America would be back to work by Easter.

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Donald Trump (AP)

Donald Trump (AP)

Donald Trump (AP)

The White House and US senate leaders have reached an agreement on unprecedented emergency legislation to rush in aid measures worth two trillion dollars (£1.7 trillion) for businesses, workers and a healthcare system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the largest economic rescue measure in history and is intended as a weeks- or months-long patch for an economy spiralling into recession and a nation facing a potentially ghastly toll.

Top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The deal still needs to be finalised in detailed legislative language.

The unprecedented package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a 367 billion dollar (£313 billion) programme for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay at home.

One of the last issues to be finalised concerned 500 billion dollars (£427 billion) for guaranteed, subsidised loans to larger industries, which included a dispute over how generous to be with the airlines.

Hospitals will receive significant help as well.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said: “After days of intense discussions, the senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic.

“It will rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation’s healthcare fight.

“And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible, to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

Donald Trump
Social distancing in evidence as Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room (AP)

Even as the health crisis deepened on Tuesday, US president Donald Trump expressed eagerness to nudge many people back to work in the coming weeks and held out a prospect, based more on hope than science, that the country could be returning to normal in less than a month.

“We have to go back to work, much sooner than people thought,” Mr Trump said.

He told a Fox town hall event that he would like to have the country “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter – April 12.

But in a White House briefing later, Mr Trump said that “our decision will be based on hard facts and data”.

Medical professionals say social distancing needs to be stepped up, not relaxed, to slow the spread of infections.

At the White House briefing, public health authorities said it was particularly important for people in the hard-hit New York City metropolitan area to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and for those who have recently left the city to do the same.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said pointedly at the briefing: “No-one is going to want to tone down anything when you see what is going on in a place like New York City.”

The unprecedented economic rescue package would give direct a one-time payment of 1,200 dollars (£1,025) per adult and 500 dollars (£427) per child directly to the public.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of Covid-19 patients grew during the talks at the insistence of senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, while Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salary of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed.

Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a 600 dollars (£512) per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Anthony Fauci
Dr Anthony Fauci (AP)

“It ensures that all workers are protected whether they work for businesses small, medium or large, along with self-employed and workers in the gig economy,” Mr Schumer said.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that is estimated to provide 50 billion dollars (£42 billion) to companies who retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ pay cheques. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

Democrats pointed to gains for hospitals, additional oversight of the huge industry stabilisation fund, and money for cash-strapped states.

PA