U.K. Is Easing Covid Rules, Bringing Businesses Fresh Concerns

Businesses have been been clamoring for the government to finally reopen the U.K. economy. Now that face masks and social distancing will be all but dropped, they have a new set of worries.

Industry groups, big and small, largely welcomed U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s much-anticipated plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions on July 19. But there was also a healthy dollop of skepticism. Yes, it’s good news for many pubs and night clubs -- but there is also the issue of liability surrounding infections in the workplace.

U.K. Is Easing Covid Rules, Bringing Businesses Fresh Concerns

The reality on the ground is that the premier’s approach of learning to live with the virus, risks putting him in conflict with both businesses, who want clearly-defined rules, and big-city mayors, who see a duty to protect workers and consumers in a services-driven economy.

The danger is that a lack of rules will lead to a free-for-all attitude with virus cases rising. Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said it will be “critical” to build both customer and employee confidence and that the government has a “vital” role to play in providing guidance to employers. The big question remains: Will consumers come back?

Danker’s carefully-modulated words are far from a ringing endorsement of a politician who famously said “f**k business” back in 2018 and who has struggled to win the corporate world over to his post-Brexit vision since becoming leader. The pandemic forced three lockdowns and much soul-searching until a speedy vaccine rollout restored Johnson’s standing in the public’s eye.

The scales have been tipped toward a libertarian approach since disgraced Matthew Hancock was replaced with former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid as health secretary. That much was clear with Johnson’s repeated refrain about restoring people’s freedom. In the latest guidance, people working from home were told they can get back to the office.

“A key concern for employers especially will be liability as rules are replaced with guidance: what happens if I take a no masks, no screens, no distancing approach and one of my customers or members of staff comes down with Covid?” said Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses. “Risk must not be passed on to small business owners.”

Ministers highlight the link between infections, hospitalizations and deaths has been weakened by one of the world’s most advanced vaccination programs, yet infections have increased by two-thirds in the past week, fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant.

No Time

Monday’s announcement comes two weeks before relaxations becoming effective, to give businesses time to adapt. But they’re still subject to change. “I’m not taking a final decision until July 12,” Johnson said.

That means there isn’t the complete certainty many are hoping for. Businesses were stung in June by a four-week delay in the final phase of reopening that had been anticipated June 21.

“One week is simply not enough time for businesses to plan to reopen,” said Night Time Industries Association Chief Executive Officer Michael Kill. “It betrays the sense that the government doesn’t understand what it takes to reopen a businesses after over a year without trading.”

Johnson is at pains to say the opening will be irreversible after a damaging pandemic that’s cost the government more than 350 billion pounds ($485 billion) to fight the virus and support workers.

The problem is whether they can trust him.

Whose Fault?

For companies that have operated under guidelines his government laid out there is the issue of where the burden of responsibility and legal liability when someone succumbs Covid at work.

Cherry at the FSB called for the government to issue “clear, comprehensive guidance” on how companies should manage those risks and he’s not alone.

“It is vital that government messaging is clear and consistent so that businesses and consumers easily understand what is expected of them both legally and individually,” said Tom Ironside, Director of Business and Regulation at the British Retail Consortium.

As some businesses prepare to reopen, they also see the need for the government to step up support beyond the business-rate holidays, state-backed loans and wage- support programs that have been in through the pandemic but now all have end dates.

Insurance

The Concert Promoters Association, Association for Independent Festivals, and LIVE, which represents the live music industry all called for a state-backed insurance program to give their industries the courage to organize events while there’s still the risk of cancellations.

Despite all the trepidation there is also muted celebration for many in the front lines over the summer months.

UKHospitality Chief Executive Officer Kate Nicholls sees it as “the first time in 16 months that they have been able to realistically look to break even and move toward profitability.”

This is a critical week. Large crowds are expected to gather for the closing soccer matches of the 2020 European Championship. With fans eager to celebrate England’s success in Wembley’s stadium in London, the question was asked if it could all descend into a super-spreader event.

Johnson had this to say: “I think my advice to everybody would obviously be to support England enthusiastically, but in a responsible way.”

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