UK business presses for more support on local lockdowns

Boris Johnson’s government is being urged by business leaders to give more financial support and information to companies hit by local lockdowns, as ministers consider extending coronavirus restrictions.

Preston council in Lancashire said on Thursday that it expected the government to announce new restrictions there soon after a rise in Covid-19 cases. Meanwhile, Leeds city council urged people to maintain social distancing following an increase in cases. 

Matt Hancock, health secretary, convened experts from the government’s joint biosecurity centre on Thursday to review existing local lockdowns in Leicester and parts of northern England.

With further lockdowns likely, the CBI is calling on the government to support businesses hit by the restrictions with a system of funding, as well as more clearly communicate the arrangements.

Matthew Fell, UK chief policy director at the CBI, said that the government should consider extending help from the furlough scheme to workers forced to stay home. 

He added that businesses understood that the government needed to move quickly with local lockdowns but said that there had been frustration over how restrictions had been communicated.

The CBI said the recent experiences of lockdowns in Leicester, east Lancashire, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Aberdeen should help create a smoother process. 

“Local lockdowns are a crucial piece of the puzzle in how we manage the risk of infection and reopening the economy safely, so we must get good at them,” said Mr Fell. “It would be fair to say that the local business reaction has been mixed at best on how they have gone so far.”

Other business groups have also called for greater support and clarity about local lockdowns.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said that with “local lockdowns potentially around the corner at any given time” it was “exceptionally difficult to plan, invest and recruit”.

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Government officials said chancellor Rishi Sunak was “very alive” to the economic problems caused by local lockdowns and that he was looking to put in place “the right support measures” in the autumn.

Restrictions in recent lockdowns have varied. In Leicester, non-essential shops had to close, but in northern England there has been a ban on households mixing indoors.

Businesses affected by the lockdowns have complained about confused government messaging and lack of support after ministers imposed restrictions.

Sacha Lord, a business adviser to Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, said the new restrictions introduced by Mr Hancock last week had deterred people from going out to restaurants because family and friends were not allowed to join them.

“There are so many people that simply aren’t turning up for bookings, because they were in a mixed group or they are simply too fearful to go out, and the operators are taking a massive hit from this,” he added.

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