“A more significant return to normality by Christmas” is how the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson described his plan for unlocking society again when he unveiled it in July. While we all wished this to be successful, last week brought us back to a sobering reality that we will be living with restrictions for another six months yet, at least.
When the Great War started in summer 1914 many confidently predicted that it would “all be over by Christmas”, of course history tells us that the war raged for four long years, bringing much bloodshed and misery, just as coronavirus, too, has brought much hardship and heartache. However, this comparison only goes so far. A virus, unlike war, does not respond to political pressure or a peace accord which is why, despite a huge global effort to make it stop, we are still having to manage our societies much differently than we would typically consider ‘normal.’
While war and the mistakes of history have a tendency to repeat themselves, as the rates of virus transmission begin to increase again, and the need for action becomes apparent, we do at least seem to have learned lessons from our experiences at the beginning of the pandemic. While we are still without a vaccine, some of the treatments we have developed should mean that Covid-19 is less catastrophic for those who do end up in hospital. We also now have a test and trace system, which makes us better placed to identify where outbreaks have occurred and limit the associated harm as a result. We have also developed our thinking in terms of managing the economy. At the early stages of the pandemic there was a sense that we could close businesses until the virus goes away, or that we could divide businesses into ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’, which was highly arbitrary and ultimately disadvantaged smaller, independent stores. As large sections of the economy are open again, businesses have taken huge steps to create safe environments, with social distancing, Perspex screens, one-way systems and other measures which, taken together, help keep everyone safe. The Northern Ireland Executive has recognised the efforts made by businesses, and the recent comments by the First Minister, that ‘business is not the villain’ when it came to rising virus transmission was an important message.
The recent restrictions which have applied across Northern Ireland are focused on reducing household mixing, where the virus is more likely to spread in an unregulated environment when people relax and drop their guard. We take no comfort in these restrictions. Small business owners and self-employed people are just like any other section in society, and will be disappointed that limits have been applied to how they see friends and family. However, we welcome the common sense approach taken regarding the exemptions, where tradespeople, hairdressers, beauticians and others, will be able to enter homes with safety measures applied, recognising the broad range of economic activity which may lead to someone requiring to enter another household. Similarly, the decision to allow ‘wet-only’ pubs to open with restrictions in place, at the same time as restricting households mixing in private settings, may be confusing to some but actually recognises the importance of allowing businesses to trade if they can do so safely. This has been a key principle advanced by FSB throughout, and we are pleased that this is now widely accepted.
However, even for the businesses which are permitted to open, the challenges of social distancing, disruption to their supply chain and reduced demand in their export markets means things aren’t necessarily rosy in the garden. Last week, the Chancellor brought forward his ‘Winter Economy Plan’ with the aim of seeing businesses through the difficult months. Many of the measures brought forward will be welcomed by smaller businesses, such as greater flexibility on their repayments of CBILS or Bounce Back loans, as well as measures to spread out and defer self-assessment tax and VAT payments, and a further Self-Employment Income Support Grant, for those eligible. While the Job Support Scheme is welcome, the requirement for businesses to pay a third of the cost of unworked hours may see the scheme be unsuitable for some. That said, it may be useful for businesses who expect an upsurge in demand quite soon, and who are keen to keep skills within the business, albeit with the extra costs attached. Therefore, while it may lead to some jobs being retained it is regrettably to be expected that redundancies will follow this winter. The Executive must rapidly put in place a bespoke re-training programme to help those who lose their jobs to re-skill in other sectors. This should serve to address areas where there are skills shortages while also avoiding the negative consequences of long-term unemployment.
Just as many wars are won and lost in winter, whether or not our economy enters the spring in healthy shape will depend on the decisions made over the next few months. Government, both at Stormont and at Westminster, should be nimble and be prepared to step in as circumstances change, particularly if more intense restrictions are required.