With daily cases of Covid rising to almost 4,000 on Sunday, Boris Johnson has announced strict new measures to curb the virus. Rules came into effect on September 14th that limited meetings of up to six people from up to six households. However, government scientists warned that without tougher measures the country could expect to see almost 50,000 new cases per day by mid-October.
Addressing Commons at 12.30 on Tuesday 22nd, Boris Johnson outlined the new rules, which are expected to remain in place for 6 months. Although keen to avoid another full lockdown, the PM warned that the outlook was stark, reflecting the stricter penalties if people failed to comply with restrictions. For the time being, places of education are to remain open and businesses can continue to operate under the new rules, which include the following:
- A 10pm curfew on pubs and hospitality venues from Thursday
- A return to working from home, where possible
- A drive to encourage mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing
- Hospitality sector restricted to table-service only and staff to wear compulsory face coverings
Johnson went on to say that even after 6 months of restrictions, it’s likely that caution will still be needed. Testing capacity has failed to meet the recent surge in demand, while a vaccine isn’t expected until the middle of next year. The PM said that statistics show that fewer than 8% of people have antibodies. Coming into the winter months, scientists are advising people to get the flu vaccination as it’s possible to contract both flu and corona simultaneously with potentially serious consequences.
On the positive side, the PM said that the country is better prepared for a second wave of the virus, with a stock of ventilators and large capacity hospitals such as the Nightingale ready to go. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hoped that a rapid response to curb the virus can be deployed. He also stressed that although the new measures would impact many businesses just starting to get back on their feet, the country remained largely operational, avoiding a second lockdown.
Johnson has spoken of a second lockdown as the “nuclear” option, indicating just how serious the impact would be for the economy as it struggles to cope with the repercussions of the first. ONS figures show that firms are continuing with redundancies as they prepare for the end of the furlough scheme in October. Some 695,000 UK workers have disappeared from the payrolls of British companies since March, when the Coronavirus lockdown began.
Statistics also show a growing disconnect between employers and their workers. While more than half (51%) of employees say their emotional wellbeing has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, only 12% of employers agree. With many companies operating vague home working arrangements, there’s growing uncertainty surrounding company policy where employees have been left to make their own decisions.
Worryingly, more than 1 in 10 businesses (12%) say they’ll consider outsourcing work to another country if more employees start working remotely. Cheaper access to labour outside the EU has always been an incentive for business to outsource some operations overseas. With many companies struggling to stay afloat and remote working expected to continue, it’s inevitable that some will choose the cheaper rates on offer further afield.
This month has seen businesses adopt further cost cutting tactics. BA have been locked in disputes with trade unions over its controversial plans to fire staff then rehire them on less favourable terms. Many workers are facing pay cuts or the loss of bonuses and commissions. High street retailer John Lewis is one of the companies scrapping its annual staff bonus this year after huge losses and store closures following lockdown. Meanwhile Whitbread, who own Premier In and Beefeater, announced plans to cut 6,000 jobs.
With financial insecurity topping the reasons for an expected mental health pandemic, 48% of large businesses say staff burnout is a new challenge they’ve faced. As well as somewhat contradicting the previous statistic (only 12% of employers agree the pandemic has negatively impacted social wellbeing), this also sees a sharp rise from 29% on the previous month. Projections from the Centre for Mental Health predicts that the emotional impact of a second wave of Covid-19 will be greater still, and last much longer.
Another factor set to further complicate matters is Brexit. After recent wrangling, Brussels still wants a deal with the UK by this autumn. However the EU has warned the UK that it could face legal action if it does not ditch controversial elements of the Internal Market Bill by the end of the month. The PM says that the Bill contains vital safeguards to protect Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if negotiations on a future trade deal break down. However critics, including a number of Tory MPs, warn that it risks damaging the UK by breaching international law.
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