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Prime Minster Boris Johnson at the Omicron Covid variant press conference

Business leaders slam ‘last minute’ Covid plans

Business organisations have criticised the government’s ‘last-minute’ announcement that England would move into Plan B measures to curb the spread of the Omicron Covid variant.

At a press conference last night (Wednesday), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the return of working from home guidance, the introduction of vaccine passports and stricter rules on mask wearing.

Work From Home measures, he said, should start from Monday although they are a ‘where possible’ recommendation rather than mandated.

Compulsory requirements to wear face masks in most public indoor venues – including theatres and cinemas – will be compulsory from tomorrow (Friday).

There will be exemptions in venues where it is not practical to wear one, such as when people are eating, drinking or exercising – so face masks will not be required in hospitality settings.

NHS Covid passes will be mandatory for entry into nightclubs and venues where large crowds gather – unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people, unseated outdoor venues with more than 4,000 people, and any venue with more than 10,000 people.

Proof of a negative lateral flow test will also be accepted in lieu of not having received two Covid jabs.

Businesses have been given a week to implement new measures.

Parliament will vote on the new measures on Tuesday, December 14.

Responding to the announcement, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, CBE, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “We have been calling on the UK Government for several months to set out what contingency plans for business would look like if further restrictions were needed this winter.

“Yet again, firms are now being asked to make changes at the very last minute.

“Restrictions will also impact on consumer behaviour with knock-on effects which could risk the fragile recovery, order books and revenues.

“Many businesses have only just begun to get back on their feet and this move will inevitably damage business confidence. Critically, firms need to know that the Government will support them through this next period.

“The Government must once again stand shoulder to shoulder with business and provide a package of support to ensure that we get through a challenging winter without serious damage to our economic recovery.”

She said that Work From Home advice would come at “a huge cost to swathes of businesses”.

“While many firms now have well established remote or hybrid working practices, which will provide some resilience, there will be many more that will be badly affected by reduced footfall in our towns and city centres.

“This will impact on business revenues at a time when many needed to have a prosperous festive season. We need to have grant support in place for all firms affected and their supply chains,” she said.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, added: “New measures aimed at limiting the spread of Covid during the crucial festive period will impact small businesses already beset by supply chain disruption, inflation and shortages.

“Many small businesses have already spent thousands on making their premises safer for customers and staff since Covid struck.

“Amid a rise in abuse towards shop owners, and with small companies still cash-strapped, business owners simply don’t have the capacity to be enforcement officers for Plan B. We’re urging the Government to swiftly clarify where it stands on new measures, its strategy for enforcement, and expectations of small firms.”

He also called for the government to outline what Plan C might involve.

And Matthew Fell, chief policy director at the CBI, said: “Fresh restrictions are a big setback for businesses, particularly for those in hospitality and retail who are in a critical trading period, as well as others such as transport.

“While Covid certification can support public health, careful implementation and enforcement will be required to assist businesses affected.

“It will be vital that the impact of these restrictions is closely monitored, and that the government is ready with targeted support as required.

“Omicron will quite likely not be the last variant. We need to create consistency in our approach and build confidence by reducing the oscillation between normal life and restrictions. Prioritising daily testing, rather than self-isolation, is a good step. Firms need continued forward guidance and a commitment from government to prioritise ongoing free, mass rapid testing as we learn to live with the virus.

“Meanwhile, firms will continue to do all they can to protect their staff and customers, including being as flexible as possible to enable employees to get their boosters.”

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