Shevaun Haviland is the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. She tweets at @BCCShevaun.
When the COVID-19 crisis engulfed the globe, it was, first and foremost, a public health emergency of a scope and severity that was unparalleled for at least a century. But it also quickly turned into an economic shock of similar magnitude, with the Quarterly Economic Survey by the British Chambers of Commerce showing an unprecedented impact.
More than a year later, there is newfound optimism in our business communities, but there’s also a sense of anxiety that the crisis is not yet over and there may be more pain to come. That is why we have been calling on the U.K. government to set out a clear Winter COVID Contingency Plan.
The ingenuity of our businesses has been a constant throughout the pandemic. Even in the darkest days of last winter, many firms carried on by adjusting and adapting, keeping our economy moving forward and serving their communities. Now, businesses are leading the way in taking advantage of the vaccine program’s tremendous work, intending to build themselves and their communities back even better than before.
I recently spoke to a family-run office-fitting firm that lost almost all of its customers at the onset of the first lockdown. Fast to react, they immediately turned their infrastructure over to fitting out COVID wards and, later, vaccine centers. They told me their traditional trade is now picking back up, but like many others, they are fearful it could disappear again if restrictions return.
Businesses like these bring an intrinsic social benefit to our local economies and communities and should be carefully guarded. But while there are positive signs of recovery, many businesses across the country are still grappling with significant debt, depleted cash reserves and — in a lot of sectors — significant labor shortages.
Meanwhile, there’s talk from the government, scientists and experts of a “difficult winter” ahead. A new COVID variant that is more resistant to the vaccine, combined with a difficult flu season, could easily put the National Health Service under extreme pressure and force the government to, once again, impose restrictions.
What businesses need now is certainty. Specifically, they need to know what circumstances would force the government to reimpose restrictions and what exactly those measures would be. The British government’s previous roadmap had four tests that were used to decide whether reopening could go ahead at each stage. We need to know whether these tests still apply, and what would trigger a change in approach. And we need to know that now — with a clear contingency and support plan presented by the government before winter.
In this area, Germany offers an important lesson. The country’s ”Kurzarbeit” scheme has been a feature of its economic planning for decades. When activated — only in the most difficult of circumstances — it immediately offers wage support similar to the U.K.’s furlough scheme. However, by being permanently “on the shelf” and ready to go, it reassures firms they will be supported even if the worst happens.
Planning ahead in this way in the U.K. could save thousands of jobs. Just knowing such a plan exists would give recovering firms — and their customers — more confidence going into the months ahead.
We are not asking the government to look into a crystal ball and predict the future in minute detail. We are simply asking that they give businesses the assurance that there is a plan in place for the winter and that they will not be left without the support they need.
This would provide businesses with the confidence they need to move on from just surviving to growing, thriving and leading the way out of the coronavirus crisis.