Robert Lloyd Griffiths, Director of IoD Wales responds to the easing of lockdown rules as business we kick start the bounce-back from Covid-19.
We understand that this public health crisis is not yet over.
Our Government has stressed the need to take a careful, cautious and considered approach to the easing of lockdown restrictions whilst providing a clear roadmap and guidance for businesses so that we can kick start our economy and bounce back.
The announcement on Friday by the First Minister means that daily life can now slowly restart. This is good news for our economy, particularly the retail and housing sectors who have now started to open. However, the next three weeks can’t come quick enough for our important tourism industry, and its supply chain, if attractions, self-catering accommodation providers, hotels and caravan parks are going to salvage some of this summer’s season. The removal of the five mile restriction is a critical part of this recovery as is the opening up of childcare so that employees can return to work.
Let’s not forget that many companies will only be able to operate at significantly reduced levels under social distancing rules. In a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Directors across Wales and the rest of the UK, we found that just half (49%) of those surveyed could operate at pre-crisis levels under social distancing rules, while more than one in five (22%) would be working at less than half capacity.
It’s therefore important to stress that for business to continue to operate, or reopen, directors need to be confident that acting in accordance with government guidance will keep their employees and customers safe. Directors carry responsibility for health and safety at work, and some may not want to open workplaces if they are not comfortable with the level of legal risks.
With the survey showing that many firms face an uphill struggle to get back to anything like pre-coronavirus levels, it is clear that social distancing presents an unprecedented challenge for firms, and some may be simply unable to make it work. We also have the additional challenge that companies operating in both England and Wales are juggling two different sets of guidance with the rules different across the Border.
Organisations that can adapt will take time to start firing on all cylinders, particularly as demand across the economy continues to lag. Businesses may face another cashflow crunch as they spend money on measures to make workplaces safe before revenues return. That’s why it is so important that the five mile rule is relaxed in two weeks’ time so that businesses have access to the customer that they desperately need.
Directors want to be responsible, and protecting their staff and customers is paramount.
Guidance which provides a clear framework for operating safely is crucial. Business leaders must work with their people to build trust and understanding around the way forward.
Directors have significant legal liabilities and they need the confidence that if they do the right thing they won’t be at undue risk. Ultimately, individual business leaders and boards have to exercise their own judgement, as guidance can never predict every scenario. Clarity of communication is critical.
This is a time for innovative and agile policy-making and strong communication. Many small firms may need support accessing protective equipment to get up and running again. Employers will need flexibility as the furlough scheme is unwound to manage the return to work. We should also remember that the self-employed play an important role in our economy, but many have faced particular concerns around access to support in response to Covid-19 and business interruption. They need help particularly as unemployment is likely to surge in the months ahead and the chances of securing new work will therefore be reduced.
Wage support has given firms some much-needed time to regroup.
Many have adjusted their business to the new circumstances, launching new products and embracing digital platforms. Despite these efforts, activity will inevitably be below normal for some time as social distancing continues, and employment looks set to take a hefty hit. Salaries and vacancies are also likely to keep falling as businesses aim to keep costs down. More bad news could be just around the corner, as redundancy consultation periods kick in.
The First Minister has now given us greater clarity. We know where we’re going and we need to make sure that we have clear and consistent communication at all times. It is a responsibility that we all share to stick to the rules, to observe social distancing and to make our ‘new normal’ work as we move forward whilst living alongside coronavirus.