In these desperate times, our government has had the unique challenge of trying to defeat a deadly virus, whilst trying to avoid destroying our economy in the process.

It quickly identified that retaining existing jobs was a key component in keeping the economy in a condition which may allow it to recover in due course.

Hence, the Job Retention Scheme was one of the first initiatives announced.

Under this scheme, the Government will refund employers with 80 per cent of the salaries, up to £2,500 per month, of workers furloughed from March 1 to May 31, or part thereof.

The minimum length of time that can be claimed is three weeks.

The scheme may, in due course, be extended beyond May.

Furlough is a new word for many of us and it means a temporary leave of absence, in this case due to the impacts of Covid-19.

The scheme also covers the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage.

In order to claim, an employer must register on the online portal.

This is not ready yet and is not expected to be operational until at least the end of April.

There is no indication of when employers will receive the salary refund once the portal is operational.

This is one of the many uncertain aspects of the scheme. That such uncertainties exist is hardly surprising given the difficulty of designing and implementing such an enormous grant scheme in a matter of days.

An area of immediate concern to the rural economy is how it applies to seasonal workers.

With Easter fast approaching, now is the time that many rural attractions would normally be opening their doors and others would be ramping up for the busy months ahead.

In order to be eligible, employees must have been on the PAYE payroll on February 28, 2020.

They can be full time or part time, on agency contracts or zero hours contracts.

Many workers in the rural economy will receive variable amounts of pay depending on hours worked.

In this case, the employer can either base the claim on a monthly average over the last 12 months, or the equivalent months of 2019.

Employers can pay the affected staff the 80 per cent of salary which will be refunded, or the full salary.

The employer will be responsible for the NI and pension contributions on the element paid that is not covered by the scheme.

Once furloughed, the employee is effectively laid-off and cannot undertake any work for the employer.

All these arrangements should be agreed with employees with regard to existing employment legislation and confirmed in writing.

The scheme may not be 100 per cent perfect or 100 per cent clear, but it is an essential lifeline and should help many small rural businesses through this very difficult period.

l Tom Wills is head of agriculture and estates at Sintons.

He added: “Throughout the firm, we remain fully contactable and open for business despite the challenges presented by the developing Covid-19 outbreak.

“Our technology infrastructure and business continuity planning enables our team to work remotely if and when necessary, and we are also making wide use of Skype meetings as a result of the Government’s social distancing advice.”

To contact Tom or the team, email or (0191) 226 3796.