Business leaders demand clear timetable to restart economy

The Prime Minister is due to sketch out an easing of the coronavirus lockdown at the weekend

Hospitality firms such as restaurants and cafes are particularly anxious to know if they will be allowed to start operating with strict safety measures in place before money runs out

Business leaders have called for a detailed timetable setting out how the economy will reopen as they fight to save millions of jobs.

Bosses are desperate for Boris Johnson to lay out a clear route away from lockdown when he gives a landmark speech on Sunday, so they can plan ahead following weeks of conflicting messages and off-record briefings.

The Prime Minister is due to sketch out an easing of the coronavirus lockdown at the weekend. This is expected to include dropping the “Stay at home” part of the government’s message and will allow more free movement outdoors. However, companies fear the announcement will not contain enough detail on Government’s intentions for them to get back to work.

Hospitality firms such as restaurants and cafes are particularly anxious to know if they will be allowed to start operating with strict safety measures in place before money runs out.

Bosses have been alarmed by debates over economically destructive policies such as a 14-day quarantine on all travellers coming to Britain, or rolling lockdowns every few months to contain Covid-19.

A host of proposals have been floated by Whitehall sources but ministers have so far refused to discuss a way forward in public despite a clamour for certainty from companies which are rapidly heading for collapse.

Chris Grigg, chief executive of blue-chip property business British Land, said: “Government has done such a good job of scaring people that getting them back to work is going to take quite a long time.

“I want a timetable that’s realistic and which doesn’t regard the only important thing as getting Covid numbers down very low because there is plenty of evidence of other costs.”

A battle is going on in Whitehall between ministers who want to open up the country quickly to limit economic damage, and those arguing for a slower return to protect lives. However, some senior business leaders argue that if lockdown lasts too long their will be little of an economy left. The economy is already forecast to shrink by a record 35pc in the second quarter of this year, even if normality returns in coming months.

Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses are looking for forward guidance - what the likely timescales could be for de-escalation, and what the phasing could be.

"They know Government may have to pause or change the process based on new scientific advice, but need some  guidance in order to plan effectively for restart.”

The retail industry has been dealt a particularly crushing blow by the lockdown, and Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, warned that businesses need time to plan their re-openings. This will allow them to install safety screens to protect staff and customers, and freedom to inform the public about when stores will open their doors again.

She said: “The Government should lay out its intended timetable for any re-opening with as much advance notice as possible to make this transition as smooth and safe as possible.

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said aviation companies are being forced to “take decisions about cutting tens of thousands of jobs in a vacuum ” because they do not know what ministers’ plans are.

A detailed plan for restarting the Irish economy has emerged, containing five phases and running into August which set out concrete dates for different parts of the economy such as shops and hotels to start doing business.

British companies warmed to the detail this contained, but warned against its industry by industry approach. They are instead hoping for a system where all businesses can restart if they are able to work safely.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: "We are hoping it will be standards-led, not sectoral, and businesses that can meet those standards will be allowed to reopen. We would hate to see an Irish approach that says if you're a hotel you can open here and if you're a pub it's here. There are certain premises that will be able to move faster.”

Alasdair Murdoch, chief executive of Burger King UK, added: "What we're looking for is a system that is not too complicated - the Irish approach is slightly too complicated. It is obvious that restaurants and pubs are going to be the last to reopen, so show us the phases towards that.”

Builders are also demanding clarity.

Mark Reynolds, chief executive of construction group Mace, said: "A huge amount of planning is under way to ensure a smooth return to work to protect as many jobs as possible but it will be ineffective unless Government is open about when and how restrictions will be lifted.

"Without that clarity we risk doing further damage to the economy.”

Although the manufacturing sector was encouraged by Government to keep working through the lockdown, industrial companies have called on ministers to recognise the integrated nature of the economy means that a sudden restart cannot happen unless their customers are free to operate too.

Stephen Phipson, chief executive of MakeUK, said: “Supply chains will take a while to reboot, demand will return in stages and confidence will only be restored over time.

"Everyone needs to understand that production can start a gradual return to normal levels, but we need a measured recovery rather than assuming we can jump-start the whole sector in one hit." The view was echoed by Martin Beck, a senior economist with Oxford Economics, who warned that Britain has a “better chance of preserving the fabric of the economy if businesses have the certainty to plan.”

There are also worries about mass lay-offs if government-funded furlough schemes are cut off suddenly. Businesses  fear that if the Government deems that some parts of the economy can now reopen and stops support for them, then jobs will be destroyed.

A senior business source pointed out that many companies operate across more than one industry and some staff will need to be furloughed while others return.

They said: “Scrapping the furlough scheme sectorially would be madness."