Paused economy: Is now the time to press play in the East?
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images/Archant
As Britain looks to leave its third – and hopefully final – lockdown, the prime minister has at last committed to releasing a plan of action.
Somewhat predictably his scheme, due to be revealed on February 22, has been monikered with the vague but PR-friendly title “road map to recovery”.
But bosses across the county are clamouring for something concrete to build their summer season plans on, instead of being fed further “hopeful” promises.
Andrew Mower, regional development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “There is an urgent need for the government to come forward with its road map to recovery. Action in the coming weeks, before the budget next month, would mark a real statement of intent.
“Much of the welcome business support provided to date has been directed at consumer-facing firms, but we need to see an extension of these measures to support the supply chain, as well as other groups missing out like company directors and the newly self-employed.
“Many firms here in East Anglia are also crying out for renewed efforts to promote job retention and creation. The government should take concerted action to get people back into work, and it’s senseless to wait until the end of furlough to start that process.”
But financial help can only be so far – many businesses may have to reopen with one arm tied behind their back if restrictions like a ban on household mixing remain in place.
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We spoke to experts across a range of consumer-facing industries to see what their policy priorities would be.
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“While the sector was partially open in 2020, the restrictions in place meant that in some cases businesses were only able to break even – despite being open. The tiering system and the more stringent restrictions through Christmas have meant that the sector has effectively had to manage its way through three consecutive winters,” said Philip Turner, founder and director of Bury St Edmunds-based Chestnut Group, which owns pubs and hotels across Norfolk and Suffolk.
A relaxation of household mixing rules announced in the road map would have the “greatest benefit” on his sector.
He added: “It is clear that hospitality businesses can operate in a Covid-secure way – demonstrated by the absence of increased infection rates in July and August 2020. The Treasury has conceded that various restrictions were introduced outside of scientific guidance, and that data related to the risks of the sector were inadequate to form a conclusion.
“Families and bubbles will have had almost no third party social contact for more than six out of the last 12 months. Providing a Covid-secure environment for limited household mixing is the safest way to bring society back together.” This comes alongside a plea from the likes of Suffolk’s Greene King to extend the VAT tax cut to encourage punters back through the doors.
A letter to the chancellor, signed by countless brewery bosses and droves of others in the effort co-ordinated by UKHospitality, said: “Extending the VAT cut until the end of the coming tax year will allow us to better make use of this positive measure, stimulating the economy and helping businesses to stay afloat, and, crucially, helping to boost consumer confidence.
“Government must also look at expanding the VAT cut to other products currently excluded, such as on-premise alcohol sales, leisure activities and weddings. Should we be allowed to reopen in the run up to Easter, it could also help us avoid having to pass on substantial price rises to customers in early April as a result of returning to a 20pc rate, just prior to the Easter trading weekend.
“This measure will be critical to boosting employment, particularly in 16-24-year-olds.”
- What about hitting the shops?
One of the region’s largest shopping malls, Norwich’s Chantry Place, has said the easing of measures such as household mixing and even relaxing social distancing from two metres to one – the current WHO guidelines – has little impact when compared to the need for a clear plan.
Chantry Place’s marketing manager, Sheridan Smith, said: “Like everyone, we’re looking forward to the update from the government on when non-essential shops can reopen and hope that plans will be made clear at the road map announcement.
“The most important thing is the safety and wellbeing of our visitors and our staff and the clearer and simpler the guidelines are, the more likely that they will be understood and followed.”
She added: “In any event, we’ll continue to follow the expert advice and government guidance to keep everyone as safe as possible and we will continue to monitor footfall and manage capacity at the entrances to the centre.”
- When can we get our hair done?
Most of the nation has had a slightly lop-sided hair cut since March last year and the public is keen to get back to close-contact service businesses.
But the sector says that safety and distancing is just one part of the puzzle – what they really need is an assurance that this will be the last lockdown.
Charlotte Sims, owner of Charisma hair and beauty in Norwich city centre, said: “Every time we reopen after a lockdown it’s like relaunching a business all over again. I would rather stay shut for longer if it meant we knew for sure we wouldn’t have to close again in a couple of months. It’s the opening and closing which is really damaging businesses.
“There will be some close-contact services that would want to see social distancing reduced so they can get more people in. To be honest, I prefer the space and know my customers will feel safer. In the refurbishment of our salon we’ve actually removed two stations for this reason.
“I think from a personal point of view it would be nice to see household mixing relaxed. I know I’m really missing my family and friends and so are our clients. It would be nice for our customers to be able to come in with a friend and have their nails done and a catch up – albeit a socially distanced one.”
- Will Covid passports for shows and concerts be introduced?
Like close-contact services the message from the leisure economy was clear: “We know we’ll be last, so only do it when it’s truly safe to do so.”
Ciaran Moriarty, the owner of AudioEast, a sound engineering company which works with venues and festivals across the region, said: “We know shows and gigs will be last in line to open. You have people who inevitably will crowd together so it makes sense – most people in the industry understand that.
“What’s important for us is that the relaxation of measures for other industries is clear and safe. We can’t open until they have in a measured way and so government needs to manage that and help them.”
Boris Johnson has recently played down suggestions of a vaccine passport which would allow jabbed individuals to visit theatres and cinemas or travel abroad.
Mr Moriarty added: “To be honest I think it’s a good thing. It would have caused a lot of divide between the people who could go out and enjoy themselves and those who couldn’t – either because they don’t want the vaccine or because they haven’t been offered it yet.
“I’ll be having the vaccine but I know there are people out there who don’t – at a time like this government needs to think of the public as a unit to keep them safe.”
- Will there be another campaign to get people back to the office?
With the exception of a surprising two-week campaign to get people back to the office the government has continued to tell employees to work from home.
The move has seen sites like Broadland Business Park fall “significantly quieter”, with a spokesman saying: “In the main, we are finding that businesses are keen to get back to their offices. Occupiers have said that, whilst working from home has been successful, staff want to get back to being able to interact with each other. This is particularly important for people who live on their own.”
Despite wellbeing concerns, the government needs to lay out its plan as clearly and concisely as possible, they added: “It is absolutely vital that policies are clear and simple. The likelihood of some kind of restrictions remaining throughout most, if not all, of this year is pretty high and everyone needs to be safe in the knowledge that people are following clear guidelines, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, from hand washing and wearing face coverings to adequate social and physical distancing. It needs to be the new normal.”
- What about the services sector?
Jan Hytch is the operations partner for estate agents Arnolds Keys and said that Zoom can only go so far when it comes to both staff and clients: “Although we have made huge strides over the past year in adapting our business, and we are well geared-up to meeting clients’ needs online, there really is no substitute for face-to-face human contact, particularly in a sales environment.
“There is a sociability in doing business, the personal touch is still important – and clients tell us that they like being able to meet this way.
“Once it is safe to do so, we are eager to bring staff back into the office, and there is an appetite amongst our colleagues to return.
“Tools like Teams and Zoom are good for maintaining existing networks, but not so good for building new working relationships, and the informal contact inherent in an open plan office can’t be replicated online.”
At Lovewell Blake, senior partner Mark Proctor, said getting the schools back would help the chartered accountancy back to its pre-pandemic operations: “The biggest thing that can be done to help the move back towards normality in business is to get the schools open again. Home schooling is putting immense pressure on those who are also working at home.
“I think everybody is looking forward to when it will be safe to mix with other households again. As employers, we are only too aware of the sense of isolation for those living alone.
“Human beings need contact with each other, so as soon as it is safe to do so, enabling people to mix should be a priority.”