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Silence from Treasury as businesses start to suffer

Written by: Emma Lunn
Businesses of all sizes are asking ‘where’s Rishi?’ after the public was urged to prioritise social contacts, but no government help was announced for the hospitality and other affected business sectors.

In a press conference on Wednesday night, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty suggested that people ‘prioritise’ the social contact they most value in the run up to Christmas and ‘deprioritise’ other interactions.

The UK recorded its highest-ever number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with 78,610 registered in a 24-hour period. However, no new restrictions have been introduced since ‘Plan B’ was announced last week, and no further help for affected businesses has been announced.

Sky News reported that chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently out of the country.

Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith CBE, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The need for the chief medical officer to advise the public to ‘de-prioritise social contacts’ at tonight’s press conference will almost certainly have an enormous impact for businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector. Despite this we still heard no news of any new financial support measures coming from government to help those businesses, and others badly affected by the current restrictions.

“With the UK recording its highest ever number of Covid cases in a single day, and this being set to rise further in the coming days and weeks, businesses now face the two-punch combination of serious issues with staff absence and plummeting consumer confidence.

“Until now the Treasury has stepped up at every stage of this crisis to help offset restrictions that limited business’ ability to trade fully, which is what makes its complete absence at this crucial moment all the more baffling. Businesses have heard nothing from the Treasury since this new round of Covid interventions arrived over a week ago. Not even a rationale has been provided for why it believes no new support is required. They deserve better.”

The Confederation of British Industry said the government must move quickly to restore confidence amid the rapid spread of Omicron. The trade body has put forward new proposals for businesses and governments aimed at living with the virus and its variants.

One example of immediate action it suggests includes ramping up the ‘test before you go out’ message as people see family and friends over Christmas.

It also urged the government to distribute unspent grants to alleviate firms hit hardest. If restrictions persist following the January 5 review date, it called for business rates relief and other help to reduce fixed costs.

Rain Newton-Smith, CBI chief economist, said: “The onset of Omicron means many businesses seeking to get back on their feet are once again reeling from the virus for a second Christmas in a row. Now the government must act at speed to prevent the need for further restrictions.

“Implementing Plan B was the right thing to do – but it has dented demand and consumer confidence. And further support for struggling firms will be needed if fresh government public health measures prevent firms trading their way to recovery.

“Clearer communications must characterise this next phase of living with the virus and its variants. The government’s decision to take swift action in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant was the right one. But the speed of the response gave way to a lack of clarity, leading to greater confusion, uncertainty, and concern.

“Having spent the last 20 months oscillating back and forth between open and closed, between freedom and restrictions, the key driver for confidence must now be seeking consistency. The Omicron variant is unlikely to be the final challenge the coronavirus poses the economy or the country. So, the question is: how do we learn to live confidently not just with the virus, but with its variants?”

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