Businesses warn of confusion over steps for easing of COVID restrictions

Following the government’s announcement of easing of remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Monday 19th July, businesses have warned that they still do not have all the information they need to make the transition smoothly. While welcoming the measures that effectively enable the full reopening of several parts of the economy that had been closed or restricted, Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “Many will be sighing with relief to hear the health secretary finally give the green light to reopening. But they still don’t have the full picture they desperately need to properly plan for unlocking.

“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources. Without clear guidance there could be real uncertainty on how companies should operate from 19 July and what they should be doing to keep staff and customers safe.”

Among the details causing some confusion by step 4 of the governments roadmap are requirements for face-coverings. They cease to be mandatory for indoor spaces from 19 July but the government has suggested they may be subject to individual rules imposed by businesses such as train companies. Mixed messages on exactly how some businesses should re-open or adapt to the changes are also a cause for concern says Walker: “This could lead to an inconsistent approach with different businesses reopening at different times and with different requirements which could damage public confidence, giving firms a huge logistical headache and creating a real risk of the economic recovery splintering.”

Among other areas of doubt is the legal position of employers if, having removed some or all COVID-safe measures, they then have a large outbreak of the virus linked to their premises. Working from home also remains a complicated issue for employers. With so many businesses already experiencing staff shortages due to employees contracting covid or being forced to self-isolate, many will likely take a cautious approach even with the government giving the green light for the return to the office. Walker said: “Our research shows many businesses are planning to keep at least some staff working remotely for at least the next year. But the capability to do this varies greatly across business types, so it won’t be an option for everyone.”

Research by the BCC suggests that almost two in five businesses cite concerns about possible future lockdowns as a barrier to restarting or returning to pre-pandemic levels. This rises to 50% for business-to-consumer facing firms such as hospitality and retail. Walker said: “To give firms the confidence to fully reopen the Government must set out contingency plans for any future virus response, the circumstances under which they would be used, and the support it would provide businesses impacted.”

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the CBI, also welcomes the move towards a new phase of “living with the virus”, and believes that the order to work from home if possible should be removed. “The reality is that many firms are well-advanced in their plans and are proceeding with hybrid working models, just as the Government advises. It is up to employers to engage positively with their staff to shape the unique new way of working every business needs to consider.”

Fell says that it is critical that the government works with businesses to build confidence in the move to full reopening. “Part of that is evolving the test and trace system to be fit for purpose in this new phase. That means minimising the need for self-isolation, introducing a test and release scheme swiftly and making it that bit easier for people – especially those who are double jabbed – to go about their business.

“The Government can play a pivotal role in setting new norms, starting with fresh workplace guidance, encouraging the use of public transport and continuing support for workplace testing.”

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