Boris Johnson has dubbed 19 July ‘freedom day’ – the moment when restrictions in place to slow the transmission of coronavirus will end. But mixed messages from the government and an emphasis on individual responsibility have left firms with major concerns about the safety of staff and customers, as well as the health of their businesses.
Company bosses fear that the abrupt ending of restrictions will give further fuel to the current wave of infections, meaning employees will have to self-isolate. Worse still is the prospect of yet another lockdown. Meanwhile, unions have warned that employees may face abuse or violence when they try to encourage customers to maintain social distancing or mask-wearing.
This week, as Covid-19 case numbers continued to soar, ministers backpedalled on their earlier reopening message that all restrictions would be dropped.
While people in England will no longer be legally required to wear a mask, the government now says that it “expects and recommends” that face coverings to be worn in crowded and enclosed public spaces. In Scotland and Wales face coverings will remain compulsory.
The announcement left retailers, bar managers and other business owners with just five days to prepare.
Newly published guidance tells retailers to “consider encouraging, for example through signage, the use of face coverings by workers, particularly in indoor areas where they may come into contact with people they do not normally meet”.
Professor Denis Kinane, immunologist and chief medical officer of testing firm Cignpost Diagnostics, criticised the government’s approach.
“In the absence of compulsory measures, essentially the government is leaving it up to the employer, and to some extent the employee, asking them to choose their own level of precautions and make their own risk assessment,” he said.
“At the moment we are seeing a large upsurge of positive cases across Cignpost and thus I am not comfortable with the government’s abrogation of the responsibility to give advice.”
That upsurge presents a risk for businesses. Half a million people were “pinged” by the NHS app in the last week and told they must self-isolate – the highest weekly number so far. The Unite union has issued a warning that factories may have to close because the number of people self-isolating is causing “havoc” on production lines.
Assistant general secretary Steve Turner said he had received “extremely worrying” reports from members. “It is not an exaggeration to say factories are on the verge of shutting and that at some sites hundreds of staff are off work,” he said.
Over half (53 per cent) of UK small business owners think that it’s too early for restrictions to be lifted and that the country is at risk of being forced into another lockdown, according to a poll by insurance provider Simply Business.
As so often during the pandemic, hospitality businesses will be at the sharp end of the latest changes. The industry has generally welcomed the ending of restrictions, which will let venues pubs, bars and restaurants operate at full capacity once again and bring in some much-needed cash.
However, those plans are in jeopardy if staff come into contact with others with Covid-19. Gordon Stott, a chef at the Purefoy Arms in Hampshire, said his team is worried about staff being ordered to self-isolate.
"We will be sticking to masks until all staff are double vaccinated,” he said. “We are less worried about becoming ill than us having to close!"
Cathy Frost, owner of restaurant and bar Panoramic 34 in Liverpool, said she would be keeping in place all measures from her current Covid-19 risk assessment for the time being.
“We’re pleased that the government are easing restrictions to enable hospitality to have a fighting chance of resuming somewhere near normal service,” she said.
“Whilst allowing the public more freedom and letting them take some responsibility, we will continue to test all of our team every week and encourage them to take advantage of the vaccination programme.”
The Federation of Small Businesses said firms were working hard to update their plans in time for Monday.
“We’re urging shoppers and revellers to respect the unique house rules of every business when they’re out and about from Monday,” he said.
Lack of clarity on the guidance has prompted supermarket bosses to issue their own statements on their respective rules. They indicate that “freedom day” may look more like the status quo than its name suggests.
Sainsbury’s said it will continue to limit customer numbers in stores and will advise customers to wear masks. Staff and customers at Waitrose, John Lewis, Aldi, Lidl and Tesco have all been recommended to continue wearing masks.
The Usdaw union has warned that the policy creates confusion and could put shop-floor workers at risk of violence, abuse and threats because restrictions no longer have the force of the law.
Ultimately, the manager of the shop, pub or bar has the final say on how customers must behave on their premises, said health and safety expert Simon Jubb from consultancy firm A3c.
“There is lot of talk about freedom and not having to do certain things any more like wear masks, however that’s not strictly true,” said Mr Jubb.
"While public areas are the domain of government, private premises and businesses have their own duty of care to their staff and their service users.”
He added: “If the sign on the door says masks to be worn then as a service user of that business you have two choices: mask up or don’t use the service.”
However, closely people and businesses follow the new voluntary guidance, a bigger question is whether the changes will achieve their aim.
While the relaxations are intended to give the economy a further jolt by encouraging people into town centres, there is some evidence that the government’s approach could harm the high street,
A survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of Manhattan Associates found that 52 per cent of respondents said a lack of social distancing in stores would make them more likely to shop online.
As has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, the economic recovery remains dependent on first tackling the virus.