UK business leaders have expressed “relief” after the government committed to pay the wages of employees unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, the government announced it would pay 80% of salaries for staff who are kept on by their employer.

The Confederation of British Industry said firms were “overwhelmed with relief” by the “landmark” pledge.

It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson also ordered cafes, pubs and restaurants to close from Friday night.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who announced the support package at the daily coronavirus briefing with the PM, said closing pubs and restaurants would have a “significant impact” on businesses.

But he added the government intervention – covering wages of up to £2,500 a month – would mean workers should be able to keep their jobs, even if their employer could not afford to pay them.

It is understood the wage subsidy will apply to firms where bosses have already had to lay off workers due to the pandemic, as long as they are brought back into the workforce and instead granted a leave of absence.

The government had been under growing pressure to intervene to support workers to prevent mass unemployment as a result of measures directed against the outbreak.

‘Unbelievably relieved’

The CBI, the UK’s biggest business group, said it was a “landmark” offering from the government.

“It marks the start of the UK’s economic fightback – an unparalleled joint effort by enterprise and government to help our country emerge from this crisis with the minimum possible damage,” director general Carolyn Fairbairn told BBC Newsnight.

Nik Antona, national chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), said many pubs had been “hung in limbo” and welcomed the “clear instruction that closing their doors is the right thing to do” and gave owners confidence that the government would support their staff and their business.

The British Beer and Pub Association said the chancellor’s new measures would help “safeguard thousands of livelihoods”.

Tim Foster, co-founder of The Yummy Pub Co, which runs four pubs in and around London, said the new measures were overdue but would stop his 89 members of staff being laid off.

“I’m unbelievably relieved. On Monday there was no business next Friday, which I spent 12 years building,” he said.

But some business groups warned of the potential risk to firms if they had to wait for the money to arrive.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, said many businesses faced rent payments before the support was due.

“Banks and landlords need to do more to help us bridge the gap towards this generous government support. Damage is being done now, so we need help now.”

The Federation of Small Businesses warned the delay in wages help – potentially until the end of April – meant many small firms would still face “an immediate, potentially terminal cash flow crunch”.

The wage package is the latest in a series of government moves aimed at easing the burden on businesses and their employees.

However, there was not the same wages guarantee for the self-employed. Instead, Mr Sunak increased benefits that many will have to fall back on.

The cinema workers’ union Bectu said the measures were a “devastating blow” to its freelance and self-employed members.

Philippa Childs, head of the union, said those workers needed “much more” support than was promised during Friday’s press conference.