Sunday, January 17, 2021

Prime minister reveals Covid Winter Plan

Tightened regional coronavirus restrictions are being introduced when England’s lockdown ends on 2 December, and will remain in place until the spring, prime minister Boris Johnson has announced.

Speaking by video link to the House of Commons, the prime minister confirmed that gyms, shops, hairdressers and places of worship will be able to reopen in England.

The country will once more be divided into three tiers, with different rules on social mingling and hospitality venues depending on the local prevalence of the virus, but restrictions for each tier will be tighter than when they were first introduced in October.

And larger proportions of England are expected to be placed in the tougher tiers two and three, as the crucial reproduction rate – known as R – remains above one across the country, meaning the virus continues to grow.

Details of relaxed restrictions for up to five days over Christmas are expected later this week, as negotiations continue with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over proposals to allow three or more households to gather for family celebrations.

Under the new regional system, due to come into effect at a minute past midnight on 2 December if approved by MPs in a vote at the start of next week, the “rule of six” limit on the maximum size of social contacts will be reintroduced indoors and outdoors in tier 1 areas. Indoor mixing of households and support bubbles will be banned in tier 2 and in tier 3, mingling of households will be allowed only in parks and other outdoor public spaces.

Tier one pubs and restaurants will be table-service only, while hospitality venues in tier 2 will be allowed to open only if serving substantial meals, while in tier three it will be takeaways and deliveries only.

A new curfew for pubs and restaurants will allow last orders at 10pm, with closing time at 11pm, in a bid to avoid the scenes of crowds in the streets seen under earlier arrangements requiring all drinkers and diners to be thrown out on the dot of 10pm.

On 2 December, across all of England, regardless of tier:

– The stay at home requirement will end, with travel being permitted again subject to guidance in each tier.

– Shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector will reopen.

– Collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports can resume.

– People will no longer be limited to seeing only one other person in outdoor public spaces

–  the rule of 6 will now apply outdoors as it did in the previous set of tiers.

Up to 4,000 spectators will be permitted in outdoor sports in tier one and 2,000 in tier two, up to a maximum of 50 per cent of venue capacity, but audiences will continue to be banned in tier 3.

Boris Johnson will announce which areas will fall into which tier later this week, probably on Thursday, he says.

Providing an initial response to the Prime Minister’s plan for Coronavirus restrictions after the second lockdown ends in England, British Chambers of Commerce Director General Adam Marshall said:

“It is helpful that the Prime Minister has heeded our call to give businesses at least a week’s notice of the rule changes that will affect firms across England from December 2nd.

“Businesses across England now need to see the detail – and will judge the latest set of Covid rules on whether they are easy to understand and based on clear, transparently-presented evidence.

“They need to know that the new rules will be accompanied by commensurate support, by a significant expansion of mass testing, particularly to workplaces across the country, and by a plan to get the economy fully open again.

“The reduction of time in quarantine for international passengers will help to re-establish connections to key markets and trade partners across the world, helping businesses that depend on the UK’s connectivity and preserving industries and livelihoods.

“Ministers can’t simply keep switching businesses on and off like a light switch without expecting severe consequences. Covid-secure businesses will be looking to the government for a plan that keeps them, and the economy, open throughout winter and beyond.”

East Midlands Chamber (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire) Chief Executive Scott Knowles said: “The end of national lockdown will be a relief for many businesses that have been forced to close through no fault of their own, and in spite of the great lengths and expenditure they had gone to in order to reopen safely.

“While we now have greater certainty about what lies ahead over the coming months, this isn’t a good news day for many businesses that will be forced to remain closed, particularly for those in hospitality facing many more months of hardship. They require the full and proper support of Government if they and their employees are to come out the other side of this.

“Businesses will be reviewing the details closely over the next few days and of course await Thursday’s announcement of which tiers different areas will be entering from 3 December. They will also want to see evidence that Government has given due consideration to the economic impact of the decisions it’s taking, weighed against an ever-improving understanding of where the risk of infection really lies.

“We hope the slapdash approach to placing areas into tiers – highlighted by the abysmal handling of introducing Tier 3 restrictions in Nottinghamshire – won’t continue with the uniform strategy promised by the Prime Minister. We also hope that this time, there will be clear guidance on how areas can move in and out of the different tiers so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

“As testing is expanded and a vaccination programme is rolled out over the coming months, it’s imperative we respond by loosening restrictions as quickly as possible, rather than waiting while the economy continues to unravel.

“It is essential Ministers understand that they can’t simply keep switching businesses on and off like a light switch without expecting severe consequences. Covid-secure businesses will be looking to the government for a plan that keeps them, and the economy, open throughout winter and beyond.”

Roger Barker, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “Advanced information on restrictions is what directors need to plan, and confirmation of the end of the national lockdown is a relief. However, today’s announcement is a decidedly mixed bag for business.

“Opening non-essential retail is a huge boost. The run-up to Christmas will be vital for companies, many of whom have invested significantly in becoming Covid-secure. It is now imperative that directors ensure their organisations and customers stick to the distancing guidelines.

“However, businesses in the hospitality sector and their supply chains will be reeling. It’s vital the Government reinstates and extends insolvency protections until the Spring. Further grant support and tax deferrals should also be considered, as firms could now see reduced income for months.

“The prospect of improved testing capacity is tantalising, reduced isolation periods could be crucial for the economy until a vaccine is ready. However, directors will be waiting to see action on the ground before getting their hopes up.”

Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chair Mike Cherry said: “Many small firms across England will be breathing a sigh of relief to hear that they’ll be able to reopen their doors once again after the second national lockdown. However many will continue to remain anxious as businesses await to discover what tier they will be placed in and the impact that will have on their trading.

“These have been trying and difficult times for so many, and with the festive season upon us it’s never been more important to see trading resume once again. As a result of the Covid crisis, many are carrying excessive levels of debt and uncertainty into the New Year and, with a vaccine on the horizon, will be relying on a Christmas uplift to help them survive through the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.

“We are grateful for those that have held back their Christmas shopping until this moment to support their local shops which means that, for the small business sector, Christmas shopping can finally begin.

“It is important the threat of suspending Sunday Trading laws is also parked, which would take trade away from small businesses to large supermarkets that have already benefited from the November lockdown of their competition.

“For many small businesses the next few weeks should be the busiest period of the entire year, but city centres, towns and high streets have seen footfall collapse, and it’s vital that there is a clear path for recovery. So that’s why for whichever tier a small business is placed under, the Government should match this with a strong, proportionate level of support.

“The announced end of the 10pm curfew will be a welcome one for those especially in the food and drink sector, who traditionally would be seeing their profits soar over the Christmas period. It made no sense to close these safe, well-regulated environments and create crowds of people on the street and on public transport.

“For all small firms, they’ll want to know that any restrictions imposed upon them, reflect the advice and data from SAGE in highlighting exactly where and how the highest risk areas are across society.

“Pubs and bars who have kitchens and Christmas menus to offer will also welcome these new rules, but those who predominantly serve drinks may well be forced to make difficult decisions about their futures without the right levels of support. Those pubs forced to serve takeaways and click and collect meals in the strongest tiers will be hard hit by these measures and will struggle to make it through to the New Year, these firms in particular will need targeted support.

“Hairdressers and salons too, who have worked hard to ensure they are Covid-safe will be pleased to be able to remain open and continue trading after what has been a tumultuous year for them. We know based on the evidence that these locations were not major transmission sites for the virus, so salons, barbers and hairdressers should be able to enjoy a strong December.

“The upcoming Spending Review from the Chancellor will be a crucial moment for him to reiterate his support for all small firms across the board. Not only is it vital to see help given to those who have seen trading fall through the floor, but also those who are yet to receive any support whatsoever.

“The newly self-employed and company directors have been left with little or no help from the government, and that has to change urgently. Which is why we’ve called for, in a joint letter, a Directors Income Support Scheme which would finally address the shortcomings that these individuals have faced, at a time when they still need to provide for their families.

“And with so many jobs already lost to this pandemic, the Government must act in other ways to get people back into work and fire up the economy once again. At the very least, the first step is for the Government to make clear the future of the Jobs Retention Bonus, the cancellation of which has undermined confidence the administration has hoped to deliver. It’s impossible to save jobs without saving businesses, which is why we need to see an increase to the level of support provided in grants, which aren’t even covering rent let alone the myriad of other fixed costs businesses face.

“Small businesses are absolutely at the heart of our communities, and we rely on them more than ever. Which is why we need to ensure that they have the right support in place during what should normally be a busy, successful and joyous festive period.”

Josh Hardie, CBI Acting Director-General, said: “Positive news of vaccines offers a ray of light for 2021. But the next few weeks and months will for many feel like purgatory – stuck in limbo between a national lockdown and a new normal.

“The speed of recovery will depend on the resilience of firms. Today’s announcements bring more consistency and clarity, which helps support business planning and protects jobs. As the crucial festive period approaches, adapting curfew and opening more of the economy will also be a boost for many.

“But harsh measures and ongoing closures will continue to risk business failures in many sectors. For firms wondering what restrictions they will face, details of regional tiers must be laid out in detail on Thursday and regularly reviewed in the future.  Further commitment to financial support will still be needed for thousands of struggling companies – particularly those in higher tiers still looking into the precipice.

“The combined efforts of business, government and society should now focus on helping restrictions ease, not tighten once more. A six-week mass, rapid testing surge could be a game changer. It should be backed with a Christmas that gives much needed family time, while avoiding an economic hangover in January.

“The country is now well drilled in managing restrictions. With a calm, consistent and co-ordinated approach across all the UK regions and nations the end of the year could mark the beginning of the fight back.”

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