Business warn social distancing after lockdown could ruin us

Empty tables

The requirements of social distancing and other safety measures after the lifting of lockdown could threaten the survival of thousands of businesses, putting millions of jobs at risk.

Business leaders and trade bodies have warned that restrictions on customer numbers allied to a decline in consumer spending could spell disaster without continuing government help.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, the trade body for restaurants, pubs and hotels, said: “With social-distancing measures still in place, reopening the hospitality sector without a plan would be catastrophic.

“It was one of the first hit by the crisis and the hardest hit in terms of lost revenue. It will also be one of the last to fully emerge from the lockdown.”

The British Retail Consortium said the immediate future remained difficult for many retailers, even when the lockdown started to be relaxed. Tom Ironside, the director of business and regulation, said: “Firms face high costs to implement social distancing measures coupled with lower footfall and there are questions about the speed and extent of any recovery in consumer demand.”

He added: “It is essential that the government doesn’t move too quickly to withdraw vitally important support once any relaxation begins.”

Ms Nicholls said that hospitality was built around socialising, making continued financial help vital to safeguard 3.2 million jobs — and taxes worth £39 billion. She added: “An extended period of social distancing will mean that many hospitality businesses will not be able to operate fully, and many will not be able to open at all.”

The hospitality industry is one of many sectors working with bodies including unions, the Health and Safety Executive and Public Health England to draw up operating protocols that would be endorsed by government.

Ms Nicholls said that separate protocols would be drafted for pubs, restaurants, holiday parks, “grab-and-go” food outlets, late-night venues and hotels. She said that some might be able to reopen earlier than others, with pubs expected to be among the last.

The boss of one of the UK’s largest retailers said that he would consider opening only a couple of shops at first. “No one is going to be rushing to open all of their shops from day one,” he said.

Pete Redfern, 49, chief executive of Taylor Wimpey, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, said that he expected his company’s construction sites to operate with a 20 per cent reduction in workforce and capacity when they re-open with new safety protocols. The company has designed bespoke PPE for workers who need to carry out two-person tasks, rearranged site layouts and devised a new set of working practices.

Alli Gay, director of CHI Homes, a Bristol-based developer, said that disruption to the supply chain and workforce caused by social distancing restrictions meant that every home would take longer and cost more to build. “The result is that for my next development, I will have to buy a smaller patch of land and will build fewer homes,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Waterstones said: “We are fortunate that there is such strong demand for books that people will want to buy, balanced by the fact that books are low margin and therefore that we require high sales to cover even the cost of our booksellers. Of course, to be sure of the safe working of our staff and safe shopping for our customers, there will also be higher costs to run our shops.”

The plans to regulate numbers on trains and buses is effectively already subsidised by the government’s six-month takeover of the railways and the local authority contracts on which the buses operate.

Automotive and aerospace factories are employing separated shifts and personal distancing and will all be operating at reduced levels because of decreased demand for cars and planes.

Another sector struggling with the concept of social distancing is the airline industry. The general rule of thumb for airlines is that you don’t start getting anywhere near making money until you are flying two-thirds full. Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair owner, has poured scorn on Easyjet’s mooted idea of leaving the middle seats empty. He said Ryanair would do that only if governments paid for the middle seat.