Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out what he expects will be an irreversible path to easing Covid-19 restrictions and unlocking the economy. The roadmap, various aspects of which were widely known from numerous leaks to the media, envisages a phased relaxation over a period of three months starting 8th March.
The first phase covers the reopening of schools and allowing some person-to-person contact. The reopening of businesses that have been forced to closed will not begin until 12th April at the earliest, when non-essential retail shops, outdoor hospitality and personal care can open. To pre-empt calls for a quicker relaxation, Government appears to have orchestrated other developments. A statement from Sir Patrick Vallance released immediately before the Prime Minister's speech warned of yet another "large wave" of Covid-19 infections if restrictions were lifted too quickly. Separately, Public Health England published an independent analysis of the effectiveness of the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The overall message was clear: the UK must proceed slowly and cautiously to protect lives and the vaccination programme must be rolled out widely to ensure that the current lockdown is the last.
Commenting on the Prime Minister's announcement about the roadmap out of lockdown, Subrahmaniam Krishnan-Harihara, Head of Research at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said: "We welcome the broad thrust of today's announcement about the roadmap out of lockdown. Businesses will be particularly pleased that the Prime Minister has offered clarity about a unified and non-tiered approach to any future restrictions. That must be the way forward because the previous system of local tiers only caused confusion and uncertainty”.
“Understandably, the Prime Minister struck a very cautious note and outlined a phased opening of the economy subject to his four key tests being satisfied. However, the Prime Minister did not offer a clear commitment to business. While he did say that the rug would not be pulled out, Mr Johnson did not spell out what forms of support will continue, and under what terms or for how long meaning everything is now up to the budget the Chancellor is expected to announce on 3rd March.
"The results of the Chamber's latest Covid-19 and Brexit impact tracker showed that sales to both domestic and overseas customers have weakened considerably since December and are now at their lowest levels since the peak of the coronavirus crisis. In the 11 months since the first lockdown was imposed, many businesses have scaled down and reduced workforce. Some have shut down permanently. The results also show that businesses in all sectors are now being impacted by a prolonged reduction in customer demand. This is certain to delay the recovery of city and town centres. The latest labour market figures from the ONS show that 726,000 jobs have been lost since February 2020 and new vacancies are 26% lower than they were a year ago.
"The challenges businesses are facing with reduced turnover and cash flow are immediate. While many businesses will welcome the direction of travel set out in the roadmap, they will want clarity and certainty about support measures. While it may be true that the budget may include announcements about support measures, businesses that are dealing with day-to-day challenges, will be rightly disappointed that the Prime Minister's “one-way street” out of lockdown does not yet pass via the high street. They will also hope that business support measures will not be stuck at the "no entry" side of the one-way street because all the available evidence indicates that without a further extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme, additional grants and business rates relief, there is likely to more business failure and job losses."