Business seeks state support as it faces England lockdown

Business leaders have called for more financial help from the government to support crisis-hit companies as ministers warned that the latest lockdown in England could last longer than four weeks.

Carolyn Fairbairn, leader of the CBI employers’ organisation, on Sunday described the latest lockdown as a “body blow”, while Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium said the new measures would cause “untold damage to the high street in the run-up to Christmas”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to face criticism from his own MPs when he sets out the details of the new curbs in a House of Commons statement on Monday — ahead of a Tory rebellion when they are put to a vote on Wednesday.

He had been set to give a speech to the CBI annual conference on Monday but was expected to cancel the appearance to concentrate on his Commons address. 

The Treasury is drawing up new support for the self-employed to try to allay business concerns, and has also extended the furlough scheme. But bars, pubs and shops say that they face growing problems paying the rent, and that the furlough payments do nothing to help on that front.

The prime minister announced on Saturday night a package of fresh restrictions in England — including travel curbs and the closure of pubs and restaurants — to last for 27 days from Thursday.

But Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, said the lockdown could be extended if the spread of the virus was not declining by then. “We’re going to review it on the 2nd of December, but we are always driven by what the data says,” he told Sky News.

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Keir Starmer: ‘If [the government] don’t use the time to fix test, trace and isolate then December 2 will be a review date not an end date’ © Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP

That stance is backed by Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, which will vote for the new curbs in the Commons on Wednesday. “We need to stay in the lockdown until the R rate [the average number of new cases generated by an infected individual] is below one,” he said.

Sir Keir said the government needed to use the month-long lockdown to fix its beleaguered test-and-trace system.

“If they don’t use the time to fix test, trace and isolate then December 2 will be a review date not an end date,” he told the BBC.

Ms Fairbairn urged the government to provide further support for companies hit by the restrictions. “We need to do everything we can to minimise the damage,” she told Sky.

The Treasury has announced that the furlough scheme for employers — which was to end on November 1 — will be extended for another month at its original 80 per cent of wages.

Now ministers are set to improve the terms of support for the self-employed, which is currently just 40 per cent of recent earnings. Mr Gove said the Treasury would say more about further measures soon.

Ms Fairbairn urged the government to go further and provide more grants rather than loans and said some industries such as aviation needed specific help.

She said the relationship between business and Downing Street “could be a lot better”.

Retailers are particularly concerned about the new lockdown, which force non-essential shops to close.

Ms Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said retailers had spent hundreds of millions of pounds making their stores Covid-safe. She cited a recent paper from Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group, that said closing all shops would have a minimal impact on the transmission of Covid.

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She said that the lockdown would “cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of the wider economy, with only a minimal effect on the transmission of the virus,” she said.

Charlie Mullins, a former Tory donor who founded Pimlico Plumbers, said the business community had been “sold down the river” by the government. “Sadly, Boris has lost track of these basic Conservative principles and has crumbled under the pressure of the job and the scientific voices whispering in his ear,” he said.

The chaotic manner of Mr Johnson’s announcement on Saturday prompted criticism from many of his MPs. One said: “People disagree with the policy and they have no faith in the Number 10 operation.” But the government is expected to see off any rebellion on Tuesday from its own ranks.

Meanwhile, Downing Street faces a fresh problem as teaching unions call for schools and colleges to be closed during the lockdown — a move that would prompt fury from business leaders because of the impact on working parents.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it was clear from Office for National Statistics data that schools were an engine for virus transmission. “Ignoring the role of schools and colleges in the spread of the virus is likely to lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future,” he said. 

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said a longer lockdown could be necessary and urged ministers to consider closing secondary schools within the next four weeks if Covid transmission continued to rise.

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But Sir Keir said he backed the government in keeping schools open to avoid the “huge” harm to children from not attending classes.


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