Firms are facing “confusing and contradictory advice” from the government about how to operate as the economy enters the final stage of reopening, it has been claimed.
Business groups broadly welcomed confirmation that social distancing rules will be removed and venues such as nightclubs allowed to resume trading as England’s lockdown rules are eased further next week.
It should also mean that 2,000 more pubs which are unviable under present restrictions – such as table-only service – will be able to start pouring pints again.
Yet despite rules being dropped, ministers are urging continued caution – for example, by recommending that people still use face masks in crowded areas and encouraging event organisers to use “COVID passports”.
Mixed messaging could sow confusion and create huge logistical headaches for businesses trying to make sense of it all, groups such as the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) suggested.
Claire Walker, co-executive director of the BCC, said many businesses would be “sighing with relief” to hear the government give the green light to reopening.
“But they still don’t have the full picture they desperately need to properly plan for unlocking,” she added.
“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources.
“Without clear guidance there could be real uncertainty on how companies should operate from 19 July and what they should be doing to keep staff and customers safe.
“This could lead to an inconsistent approach with different businesses reopening at different times, and with different requirements, which could damage public confidence, give firms a huge logistical headache and create a real risk of the economic recovery splintering.”
Ms Walker called for more clarity for firms on issues such as how to decide which COVID measures to keep, and which to ditch – and if the latter, what might be the consequences for them if an outbreak is linked to their premises.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries’ Association, welcomed the guidance that venues would not be legally obliged to use COVID passport schemes.
“Much of the night time economy relies on spontaneous consumers, and by permitting businesses to opt out, the Government have allowed for this trade to continue,” Mr Kill said.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “After nearly 18 months of closure or heavy restrictions, ‘Freedom Day’ on Monday 19th July is a huge milestone for our sector.
“It means our beloved locals can properly reopen and operate as they are meant to do so.”
But Ms McClarkin urged that forthcoming guidance for the sector “must not be used to impose unnecessary and unfair restrictions on pubs via the backdoor – resulting in ‘Freedom Day’ for pubs being in name only”.
The CBI’s chief UK policy director Matthew Fell said that the government had set out plans that were “practical, pragmatic and easy to follow”.
He added: “It is now mission critical that the government, with the support of business, does all it can to build confidence in the reopening.”
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chair Mike Cherry said the announcement “will give small businesses the hope they’ve been waiting for” but urged consumers to be patient if owners decided that they would keep some COVID safety measures in place.
“We want all small businesses and their customers to feel safe in how they shop and operate, and this includes allowing small businesses the space to make the right decisions about their premises,” he said.
“We cannot allow removing legal guidance to create a free for all, with any voluntary guidance ignored, which is why it is vital that clarity around the new state of play is given immediately.”