Government unveils taskforces for reopening five economic sectors

empty tables in street cafe

The government has unveiled five new taskforces devoted to vulnerable sectors of the economy, intended to liaise with unions and others to see how soon each sector can safely resume work with coronavirus distancing measures.

The five areas covered are all ones that have to wait before even limited reopening efforts can begin, in most cases until at least July. They are pubs and restaurants; non-essential shops; recreation and leisure; places of worship; and international air travel.

The government view is that such businesses and areas should reopen as soon as possible “when the scientific advice provided allows us to”, but that their settings provide particular difficulties with distancing and hygiene.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes, along with hairdressers, museums, cinemas, libraries and places of worship, are all earmarked to open again in the third phase of the government’s lifting of the lockdown, with 4 July put as the earliest possible date this could happen.

Some other sectors, such as other shops and food markets, could open sooner, in phase two of the economic reopening, possibly from 1 June. As yet, no date has been set for aviation.

Representatives from many of these industries have warned that a considerable proportion of businesses will not be viable if obliged to remain closed much longer, and that many thousands of furloughed workers will eventually lose their jobs.

The taskforces are intended to examine how reopening could happen in each sector, and will liaise with unions and industry leaders, as well as public health experts and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Each taskforce will be led by the relevant minister: Alok Sharma, the business secretary, leading on the first two areas covering pubs, restaurants and shops; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, on recreation; Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, on places of worship; and Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, in charge of aviation.

The aim is to help develop coronavirus-safe ways for the industries to operate, and to feed issues and worries back to government.

Permanent members will include the relevant secretary of state and potentially other ministers and officials, as well as Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, and representatives from Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive.

Others who could be invited – but only at the direction of the secretary of state – include industry heads, trade union representatives and other experts.

The plans come amid increasing worries about the size of the looming downturn caused by the Covid-19 restrictions. On Wednesday, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said the UK faced a “significant recession” after new figures showed that just the first nine days of restrictions caused output to fall in March by 5.8%, and by 2% in the first three months of the year.