The head of business group the CBI has attacked the Government’s announcements on the coronavirus, saying firms “can’t act on the basis of speculation and leaks and surmise”.
CBI director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn urged Boris Johnson to speak to the organisation’s annual conference after he became just the second Prime Minister to not appear at the event.
She said the Government had to both set out its exit strategy from the lockdown and improve the coronavirus testing system.
She added that it would be “unconscionable” to leave the post-Brexit transition period without a trade deal at a time when Europe is battling a second wave of coronavirus, describing a deal as both an economic and moral necessity.
Dame Carolyn said this had become a “week of cancellations” for businesses as a result of Saturday’s announcement by Mr Johnson that a month-long lockdown would start across England on Thursday.
And she said that damage to the economy was “inevitable” as thousands of businesses were forced to close down for a second time.
She said: “This is the run-up to Christmas, it’s the most important time for so many firms. And we’ve seen lower compliance, divisions breaking out, less trust.
“So we know that economic damage is unavoidable – there’s no point being Pollyanna-ish about it. But we need to minimise it. And that requires to get a lot of things right.
“What I’m going to say today to Alok Sharma, to Keir Starmer and to the Prime Minister is that we need politicians and the Government to be listening like never before.”
Dame Carolyn called on the Government to keep as much of the economy as open as possible, and provide financial support for companies, particularly in sectors such as aviation.
She also said there should be an exit plan from the national lockdown, improvements to mass testing and better communication with businesses.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma followed Dame Carolyn at the CBI conference, paying tribute to the business community’s resilience and ingenuity in its response to the coronavirus crisis. He added that Mr Johnson would be “addressing comments” to the CBI later in the week.
Mr Sharma promised a “steady but significant” deployment of rapid coronavirus tests but acknowledged that a vaccine which can eradicate Covid-19 “may never materialise”.
He said: “As we speak, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is in final phase trials, with the prospect of a vaccine early next year.
“Now whilst there has been rapid progress we recognise that a vaccine which fully eliminates the virus may never materialise. So we plan to also protect the country in other ways.
“As the Prime Minister set out on Saturday, we have the immediate prospect of using many millions of cheap, reliable and rapid-turnaround tests.
“Over the next few days and weeks, we will plan a steady, but significant deployment of these tests. There are paths out of this current predicament to eventually get business fully on its feet, and the economy firing on all cylinders.”
Mr Sharma rejected the suggestion that the Government’s response to the lockdown had been chaotic and said the lockdown was necessary to protect both the NHS and the economy.
He added that Brexit would be a “success for British business and the whole country.”
Appearing later at the conference, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hit out at the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
He said: ““I don’t blame the Government for coronavirus. But I do blame it for the way it’s been handled. And I can’t forgive the catalogue of mistakes that have cost lives, and livelihoods.
“The two pillars of the Government’s approach – the £12bn Track and Trace system and local restrictions – have been swept away by the second wave and shown to be totally inadequate.
“Even more unforgivable, the central lesson of the first wave was ignored: that if you are to control this virus you have to act early and decisively. And that if you don’t, the cost to people’s health and to the health of the economy is much, much worse.”