Business leaders in Birmingham have expressed concerns over the latest lockdown extension as the city is designated as a ‘strengthened support area’ to tackle a rise in delta variant cases of the coronavirus.
It is one of six locations across England to be given the status and means the city will be handed additional resources for matters such as surge testing, tracing and maximising vaccine uptake – but not additional funding to support struggling companies.
The news came as it was confirmed the next phase of the easing of lockdown restrictions would not come into force on June 21 as was originally planned and instead has been delayed until at least July 19.
Although widely trailed in the media beforehand, Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday would still have come as a bitter blow to those hoping for a return to normality, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors.
Current restrictions will remain the same for matters such as capacity limits for sporting events, pubs and cinemas while nightclubs will remain closed and events such as Euro 2020 and theatrical performances will continue to be used as pilots.
Wedding and funerals can still go ahead with more than 30 guests as long as social distancing rules remain in place.
Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce is now calling on the Government to take steps to support those businesses impacted by these remaining restrictions including reviewing the planned reduction in Government contribution to furlough payments from July 1.
The group also wants the Government to bring forward the Business Rates Discretionary Relief Fund announced in March but which is still awaiting Parliamentary approval.
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Chief executive Henrietta Brealey said: “Across so many areas of the economy, there is real positivity bubbling…..however this week is a stark reminder there is still a pandemic on and we all have a role to play in tackling it.
“For employers, it’s taking a responsible approach to encouraging employees to take regular, free, rapid covid tests, supporting attendance at vaccination appointments and sticking to the guidelines.
“It is also a stark reminder that many of our much-loved businesses, particularly in the live events, hospitality and travel sectors and their supply chains, remain severely impacted by current regulations.
“If businesses start to see trade impacted by Birmingham’s designation as a strengthened support area and the loose guidance on travel and socialising associated with it, we will be urgently escalating the need for immediate action.”
Nicola Fleet-Milne is chairwoman of Colmore Business Improvement District whose remit is focussed on the city’s core business quarter.
She said one of the key concerns from this week’s announcement was the lack of support for businesses adversely affected by this latest delay.
“Many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, have struggled to make ends meet over the last 12 months and this extension comes as a number of support schemes come to an end,” she told BusinessLive.
“While the night-time economy has been severely affected, we must also remember the all-day economy such as those open for lunches, coffees and catch ups which play a key part in the ongoing attractiveness of our high streets.
“The restrictions on capacity for these businesses mean they continue to struggle, despite being able to open. With many offices looking towards September for a fresh start, additional financial support for the sector will be instrumental in ensuring city centres and high streets survive as attractive, vibrant places to live, work and visit.”
Her concerns were mirrored by Julia Robinson, manager of Southside Business Improvement District whose remit covers the area around Hurst Street, a vital contributor to Birmingham’s night-time economy.
“The strengthened support being offered by the government is effectively surge testing and mass vaccination,” she said.
“In Southside, we have hosted a mobile test centre for over six months and we distribute covid tests, masks and hand sanitiser to businesses every week for their staff.
“Last week, we ran a mobile vaccination centre which gave over 1,000 people their first jab, many of whom previously found it hard to access medical support. What more can we do?
“There are businesses within the hospitality sector that cannot legally open yet have received less financial support than some that have been trading since April. It’s blatantly unfair and sadly will be the last straw for many struggling local businesses.”
Santa Bojarinova is general manager of The Domo Hotel which opened in Oldbury in May.
She said: “If the advice is to continue to work from home and events and exhibitions are still on hold, this means it will be another extended period of low occupancy and low revenue.
“As a company that has heavily invested in a business in an area that needs new business blood, it’s frustrating there isn’t more financial compensation or support from the Government.”
Anita Champaneri runs hospitality marketing firm Delicious PR and the Birmingham Rum Festival event which was due to take place on August 14.
She told BusinessLive: “It’s extremely frustrating for restaurants, bars, nightclubs and wedding venues thinking June 21 really would be freedom day and they could at last welcome group bookings.
“Sadly, the industry has been let down. We will have to postpone the rum festival as we can’t afford to spend time, energy and resources to have it cancelled again at a later date. With no event insurance available, we can’t even chance it.
“What is the city council going to do to help those who have another lost summer of events?”
Jo Seabright is the founder of Work From Here, an online service which connects home-workers with spaces in hospitality venues across the city.
She said this latest extension would just exacerbate the economic problems in Birmingham further.
“Like many, we are keen to see the city recover as quickly as possible and the extension and potential increase of restrictions makes this tremendously difficult,” she said.