Five principles for a gradual, successful reopening of the UK economy

The writer is director-general of the CBI, the UK business body

The business toll of the pandemic on Britain is becoming clearer every day — jobs lost in aviation, 40 per cent of shops closed, the sharpest drop in economic activity since records began. This is a health issue in its own right — the mental and physical toll of unemployment is well known. Businesses are rightly impatient to get back to work. They want to protect jobs, their employees and the wider economy.

Impatience must not be confused with recklessness. Restarting must be done with the utmost care. Move too soon and the UK will be back to square one with renewed controls. But while it may not yet be time to end lockdown, it is time for a restart plan, time for government to work with business like never before. The country must be prepared for the complexity of revived economic activity. The government is starting to make strides on this. It should accelerate.

Innovative British companies are already showing how to move forward. Every day, more and more employers are reopening, in line with health guidelines. Some have faced unfair criticism. From Kingfisher to Nissan, they are working closely with staff to agree health measures; with customers to bring back demand; and with suppliers to get goods and services moving again. This protects jobs and provides lessons for the future.

It is time to start learning and sharing those lessons — from home and abroad. From the CBI’s conversations with unions, health workers, transport leaders and international peers, here are five principles to guide a successful economic restart.

First, don’t set up a false fight between health and wealth. They stand together. Without health, there is no restart. This is both a moral and a practical position. The devastating toll from coronavirus must be contained. Work will only begin again if we have public confidence. Unless they feel safe, workers won’t return, customers will stay away and the restart will falter. Worse still, if health measures are not prioritised, infections will rise.

As one company told me: “Knock me down once and I’ll get up; knock me down twice and I might not.” A sustainable restart based on clear scientific evidence, availability of personal protective equipment where needed and a clear testing regime is the best hope of avoiding a further disastrous lockdown.

Second, build confidence together. Government, health experts, businesses, unions and civic society must develop the plan together and speak as one, supporting employers who are protecting employees and the economy. We need clarity, transparency and resilience.

Wherever possible, all regions and nations of the UK should be co-ordinated, with new forums established if needed. This will not happen without trust and architecture, and the government should be the convener, bringing in diverse voices to support the national effort.

Third, phase opening based on capacity to cope. Restart will come at different times for different sectors. Offices, farms, factories and shop floors will all face different challenges. Hospitality sees little hope of renewed activity until autumn. Those who can work from home may need to continue to do so, and this will allow others to travel. Cars cannot be sold until showrooms are open. A phased opening requires an evolution of the current economic support measures. Furloughing will still be needed to help those yet to restart, while reanimation is encouraged in others.

Fourth, flexibility can only happen within a framework. Government can’t control everything. And a “one-size fits all” approach won’t work. Other countries are lifting restrictions before us, so we can watch and learn from them. Some are reopening in prescriptive ways, leaving little flexibility.

For the UK economy, a different approach will be needed. Companies would welcome clear guidance — and proportionate enforcement — on protecting health, but with room to adapt. Regular consultation with staff will help businesses to forge ahead where it’s safe to do so or slow down when concerns emerge.

Success will also rest on the ability to unlock the enablers of economic activity: schools, nurseries and transport operators, on which businesses and their employees depend.

Fifth, and perhaps most important of all — build back better. Restart is a long-term project and must have a forward-looking vision behind it. However difficult, this crisis has afforded us the chance to be radical. Tackling inequality, ensuring the quality of work, investing in sustainability and recalibrating our education and skills system to meet the needs of the future must all be at the heart of the plan.

Revamping our tax and regulatory system to make it more competitive and investing in infrastructure, especially digital, to accelerate productivity also remain urgent.

Throughout the restart, the CBI and businesses across the UK will help unlock our economy safely and effectively. Getting this right requires a plan. It requires collaboration across government, business and society. And while the time to end lockdown may not be here, the time to prepare is now.

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