Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to outline his so-called ‘road map’ out of the current lockdown restrictions later today.
Among the topics he could cover are the reopening of non-essential shops and sports facilities such as gyms alongside children going back to school.
We canvassed the opinions of West Midlands business leaders who said clarity and workplace testing were just two of the key issues which needed to be addressed.
Henrietta Brealey, chief strategy officer at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, said businesses needed clarity on their futures with many now “stretched to the limit” as a result of reduced trade since last March.
“It is essential that, alongside a clear plan for reopening, the Government brings forward sector-specific support packages to ensure those businesses set to operate under significant restrictions, or be among the last to reopen, are supported through this time.
“Saving previously viable businesses and jobs through this short-term dramatic disruption will result in a stronger economic and social outlook and associated higher tax returns and lower defaults on Government-backed loans for many years to come.
“However, our members also tell us that they need stability. Re-opening and closing again at short notice is highly disruptive and costly.
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“We need the Government to be confident the virus is under control to avoid future yo-yo lockdowns like those seen this winter. It is clear workplace testing will be a key part of keeping the economy open moving forwards.
“We have seen reports in recent weeks that Boris’ roadmap is likely to see a return to outdoor hospitality first. We would urge local stakeholders, particularly local authorities, to use this as an opportunity to support businesses without outdoor space with innovative use of public spaces.
“We would also encourage the Government to learn from some of the challenges of the previous tiers system and avoid a return to the one household rule seen under tier 2 which our members warn is unviable for hospitality.”
A rallying call has come from the head of a Birmingham business improvement district synonymous with the city’s once thriving night-time economy.
Mike Olley, general manager of Westside BID, said that many pubs, clubs, cafés, restaurants and hotels in the Broad Street area were struggling to survive and needed to reopen to save jobs.
He said that getting the sector trading again would make a huge contribution to the economy in taxes to help the government balance its books after nearly a year of supporting closed businesses.
Mr Olley added: “Everyone understands the reasons for the lockdowns but if they have worked well enough for schools to start reopening then it’s also time to consider hospitality where the data shows that covid-19 infections have been much lower.
“We’re not demanding to open our doors at exactly the same time as schools but we would like to have a timetable as it will take venues weeks to reorganise their remaining staff, replace those who have left and to order stock.
“Now that a vaccine exists and is being steadily distributed across the population, I would have thought it’s possible for the hospitality industry to reopen at the same time as non-essential shops, with all the necessary social distancing and hygiene regulations.
“If the government does reveal plans in the next few days for schools to go back on March 8, then we would also like an outline schedule for the hospitality sector to be announced, perhaps looking at the end of March or early April.
“This would give management something to start aiming at, and then as the date gets closer the government could get more specific and might even plan a phased return to trading for different types of outlet.”
Alun Rogers, chairman of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, believes the Government needs to focus on supporting the business sectors that are struggling the most and through “no fault of their own”.
He said: “We have some fantastic businesses across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire that usually draw in many people and make it a really diverse, vibrant place to visit so it’s vital that we support the hospitality, culture, retail and leisure sectors that are struggling right now through no fault of their own.
“No matter what the outcome may be, our focus is on supporting businesses to reopen safely.
“We need to make sure there are adequate support packages in place to help these sectors which are so integral to both the economy and our society, survive the current challenges, but also to navigate reopening and some semblance of normality in months to come.”
Birmingham-based trade body the British Independent Retailers Association said it wanted to see a clear plan for independent retailers.
Chief executive Andrew Goodacre said they did not need much notice to reopen and had all the safety protocols in place such as protective screening, hand sanitising and social distancing signage.
“There is still a lack of evidence that suggests small shops contribute to spread,” he said.
“We do not believe there is a need for a tier system this time or differentiation between essential and non-essential shops. Small shops, whatever their nature, can control the number of customers at any one time.”
He’s also calling for the Government to encourage people to return to their local high street.
He added: “We’d like to see a positive national campaign to increase consumer confidence in terms of safety. Retail continues to be, and always has been, a safe place.”
Sara Williams, chief executive of the Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, said: “While the continued rollout of the vaccination programme comes as relief that we are moving towards normality, we are not out of the woods yet.
“I would like to see more done to accelerate vaccine deployment and to increase the accessibility of workplace testing so businesses can protect their workforces and customers.
“I also hope that the Prime Minister outlines a plan to provide the necessary, longer-term financial support to allow business to re-open and recover.”