The non-essential retail sector could reopen as early as 12 April
Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday a new roadmap to take England out of lockdown, showing that there is light at the end of the tunnel for businesses. According to the Prime Minister’s announcement, the non-essential retail sector could reopen as soon as 12 April. However, some businesses warned this may be too late to save them from the brink of survival.
The first step of the roadmap will see schools reopen on 8 March and five weeks later, non-essential shops will open their doors in the second phase on 12 April. The second phase, which will be confirmed at least seven days prior, include the re-opening of all non-essential retail, indoor leisure (including gyms) individually or in household groups, outdoor attractions such as zoos, drive-in cinemas and theme parks, libraries and community centres, personal care businesses, such as hairdressers, outdoor hospitality, funerals, wakes and weddings with limitations, domestic overnight stays and self-contained accommodation (both households only). Under the plan, cafes, pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers outside from 12 April at the earliest.
The government is also preparing to allow live sport and music, with larger performances of 1,000 people or half-full venues, whichever is lower, will be allowed indoors. Outdoor performances with 4,000 people or half-full venues, whichever is lower, will be allowed. For larger venues such as Wembley Stadium, as many as 10,000 people will be allowed to attend. The third step, commencing on 17 May, will see indoor hospitality and hotels open their doors to welcome guests. Thefourth and final step is where all sectors of the economy will be reopened and all legal limits of social contact will be removed.
However, non-essential international travel will still be banned. International holidays will not be allowed until at least 17 May – a date subject to review – so, those in the hard-hit aviation and tourism industries will face a much longer wait before business can resume. Hospitality represents ten per cent of UK employment, six per cent of businesses, and five per cent of Britain’s GDP, creating £130billion in economic activity.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said the sector was “devastated” that reopening was so far away. Although outdoor trade is planned for April, only 40% of hospitality firms have outside space, meaning many businesses may still be shut as they are unable to cater to this. “The chancellor has just nine days to save thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs that simply will not be there without a substantial package of compensation,” she said.
Kate Nicholls also reiterated how nightclubs have faced the brunt of the pandemic, having been closed for almost 15 months since the first wave of Covid. “The night-time economy has been left in limbo once again. While hope is now in sight, nightclub venues will have been closed for 15 months,” she said, adding that “the loss of our nightclubs would be a huge cultural blow as well as a significant economic one.”
Under pressure to offer more support while tough measures remain, the prime minister dropped a heavy hint that assistance could come in the budget on 3 March. “We will not pull the rug out. For the duration of the pandemic the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK,” he told the House of Commons.
But the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, attacked the delay. “It won’t have escaped businesses that many of them will not be able to open until mid-April at the earliest and many until mid-June,” he said. “Health restrictions must be accompanied by proper economic support. It makes no sense today to announce businesses will be closed for many more weeks and months, without economic support. Businesses are crying out for that certainty and the prime minister should give it to them today.”
Business leaders have insisted that the roadmap for exiting the third Covid lockdown must be met with extra financial support for companies and workers hit hardest by the pandemic. Tony Danker, the director general of the CBI, a business lobby group, said: “The budget is the second half of this announcement – extending business support in parallel to restrictions will give firms a bridge to the other side. This is particularly needed for sectors who will have to wait for up to three months to reopen and have an anxious 10 days ahead before the budget.”
Meanwhile, Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry has warned the government to take caution in protecting the public against the possibility of a fourth Covid wave as restrictions are lifted. "It's important for this plan to protect against a fourth COVID wave and accompanying lockdown, the imposition of which would be devastating for the 250,000 firms that fear closure this year,” Mr Cherry said. “Small businesses are clear that recovery depends on an accelerating vaccine programme, access to an improved testing infrastructure for firms of all sizes, the safe return of schools, and the right safety measures within businesses."
As lockdown end date has officially been announced, businesses can breathe a sigh of relief with the future looking much clearer. However, SMEs have urged the government to offer more support and help them ease out of lockdown and get themselves back on their feet as business resumes back to normal. It will be a tough transition for many, and it is important that the government lay a hand to help struggling firms.