As I wrote at the start of the year, it is difficult to overstate the damage that has been done to our leisure, tourism and hospitality sector and the people who work in those businesses here in Yorkshire by the current pandemic.
Against the backdrop of wasted costs, mounting debts and demoralised workforces, the government’s support packages have helped to a degree. But they have not covered the monthly bills of most businesses or made up for the thousands of pounds wasted by businesses to make their outlets Covid-19 safe, only to see them close again for several months.
Worst of all, the government’s much publicised ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme created the illusion of bumper sales, but completely missed the fact that the majority of businesses in these sectors take most of their revenue over the Christmas period.
All of this means that as we begin the unlock process next month, it is critical that the government provides everyone in the UK – businesses, workers and customers – with a plan that responds in an honest and transparent way to the likely risks that we face.
The first part of that plan must involve working with industry to form a detailed and robust roadmap so that we can reinforce confidence that the sector can and will reopen safely from April.
Conservative announcements throughout the past year of the pandemic period have been very last minute and have often felt muddled. These mixed messages have contributed to a perception that it is the industry that’s at fault for the spike in Covid-19 transmissions that led to the second and third lockdowns and sadly to tens of thousands of deaths.
Businesses in this sector such as restaurants, bars and cultural venues are all very used to maintaining high levels of health and safety standards, and data from 2020 suggests that very little transmission was down to interactions in pubs, restaurants or hotels. It is up to the prime minister and his government now to reassure the public of that message. This could be done through a concerted marketing message alongside groups such as our own Welcome to Yorkshire Tourism recovery taskforce.
Secondly, the government must ensure that businesses have the most accurate and up-to-date science so that they can plan to operate as safely as possible and in the best interests of their staff and customers. This includes an honest assessment of the risks posed by new variants of the virus, and public rebuttal of any false information that is spread by members of their own parliamentary party. As the scientists have consistently said, there is a real need for studies to show that the full panoply of vaccines are effective against the South African variant before we can truly let our guard down.
Lastly, the Conservatives must openly recognise the financial difficulties that many smaller, local businesses will have as they look to reopen during the period of uncertainty that faces us all between May and September 2021. The vaccine rollout and lockdown is certainly working to control the virus, but past experience tells us that as we unlock, the risk increases. We must not give the virus the freedom to mutate at the rate is has previously. This means that we all need to remain vigilant when we are out and about if we don’t want a repeat of the rolling lockdowns of 2020.
Next week the chancellor will announce the budget. This provides the ideal opportunity to invest in the cafes, pubs, B&Bs and restaurants that form the heartbeat of our Yorkshire communities.
A one-off Covid-19 safe unlocking grant would be a wise investment, alongside funding for local authorities and business improvement districts to invest in rebooting the high street, including setting up all-weather outdoor spaces in our towns and cities. This would provide reassurance to the public that it is safe to venture back out. Even more importantly, it would signal to owners and workers here that they are not just an industry for the summer but a part of our year-round need to socialise, have fun and ultimately raise our mental health.
Furlough should also be extended until all restrictions are removed. Based on the prime minister’s plan, that would be the end of June at the earliest. Business rate relief also needs to be offered through to October 2021 and then phased out. It will take months for businesses to restart and trade at pre-covid levels. There is no money in the bank, there are no reserves, so for most businesses they are literally starting again. The government and its ivory-tower economists must realise it takes time to reboot local economies. Failure to recognise this and to act will, in the end, result in redundancies and simply shift the cost to an already overstretched and underfunded welfare system.
Since the turn of the year all of us – citizens, our amazing NHS and the government – have worked together to do a remarkable job in the face of this terrible health crisis. The finish line appears to be in sight but the prime minister is right to dig in for the last few hard yards and he must now also ensure that his chancellor and backbench MPs stand with him to provide the support and clarity that is required to guide us through a difficult year ahead.