'It's devastating': Businesses fear longer shutdown after Chris Whitty warns UK may have reached 'limit' for reopening


Businesses have called the postponement of easing lockdown restrictions "devastating" as England's Chief Medical Officer prompted fears of a longer shutdown by warning the UK may have reached its "limit" for reopening.

Boris Johnson announced on Friday that some of the planned changes to lockdown restrictions due to take place in England on August 1 are being paused due to a rise in coronavirus cases in some regions.

Businesses including bowling alleys, beauty salons offering close-contact services and casinos can no longer open on Saturday, and must stay closed until at least August 15.

Pilots of indoor music and theatre performances will now also be postponed until further notice.

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (PA)
England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (PA)

It comes as Office for National Statistics figures suggested that coronavirus infections are rising in England, from an estimated 3,200 to 4,200 since last week.

Meanwhile, the Government Office for Science and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) revealed on Friday that it is not confident that the rate of transmission in England - the R number - is currently below one.

It all comes as England's Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said the UK may have reached a limit for how much of society can be opened up safely - potentially meaning businesses unable to open their doors this weekend will have to remain shuttered for longer than another two weeks.

Speaking at the government's Friday afternoon briefing, Mr Whitty said: "I think what we're seeing from the data from ONS and other data is that we have probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society.

"So what that means potentially is that if we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things.

"And these will be difficult trade-offs, some of which will be decisions for government and some of which are for all of us as citizens to do.

"But we have to be realistic about this. The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong."

UK Hospitality is the industry's largest trade association in the UK. Chief Executive Kate Nicholls told the Standard the industry will need "clear communication" from the government going forward, and additional support for businesses unable to reopen this weekend.

She said: "Full furlough ends tomorrow and businesses that remain closed are going to need help to protect jobs and keep their operations afloat.

"We understand that safety is the priority, but it is still devastating news for hospitality businesses. They have spent a lot of time and money, which they can ill afford to lose at the minute, getting ready to reopen. For those people who work in those sectors, the security of their jobs remains uncertain."

London-based entrepreneurs and business owners agreed, saying the last-minute change in their situation has cost struggling companies precious reserve money. One casino owner said his sector will have lost "hundreds of thousands of pounds".

Simon Thomas, the CEO of the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square, told the Standard the government's handling of the situation is "farcical".

The iconic Hippodrome Casino is among London businesses no longer able to reopen (H. Michael Miley/Flickr)
The iconic Hippodrome Casino is among London businesses no longer able to reopen (H. Michael Miley/Flickr)

He said: “It is an appalling last minute decision. We were due to be opening in 12 hours and to be told last minute like this is devastating.

“To open a business takes a huge amount of preparation.. the investment in reopening a business is possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds, and to be told last minute it’s not possible is an absolute waste. It’s hard enough out here.

“To shutter an entire sector because of what is happening in the north west is unacceptable.

“It just seems farcical to us. Nothing has changed in London. There are sectors that have reopened that are far higher risk than casinos.”

He added: “We will work and lobby as hard as we can to ensure we can reopen on the 15th August."

Harry Lobek is the owner of seafood restaurant group London Shell Company. He branched into deliveries during the pandemic and re-opened his two restaurants in July.

Mr Lobek said the news was "frustrating" and Mr Whitty's statements were concerning, as many of his peers have still not reopened and he has found that, despite having a better July intake than expected, "trade is still very much weekend driven and practically non existent in Zone 1".

He said: "For businesses to remain open and survive the rapidly approaching winter this needs to change and become more consistent throughout the week. We accepted back in March that this year is all about survival. There needs to be strong plans and designs to ensure that next year isn't a blank year. People's livelihoods are at risk."

He added: "Our business is seasonal and like many others in our position we are forecasting for a difficult winter. We need all the help we can get to get through to next summer."

UK Music's acting CEO has labelled the decision a "bitter blow" to the music industry, and says the sector "risks being left behind as other sectors get back on their feet."

Last week Andrew Lloyd Webber had trialled a socially-distanced theatre performance at the Palladium (Andy Paradise)
Last week Andrew Lloyd Webber had trialled a socially-distanced theatre performance at the Palladium (Andy Paradise)

Tom Kiehl said in a statement: “Having a date for indoor performances with social distancing was an important symbolic step on the road to recovery.

“The decision to push the date back by at least two weeks shows how vulnerable the music industry is in this pandemic and why financial support measures for musicians, creators and others must continue.”

The Music Venue Trust has said that the financial loss to venues, who had spent money getting prepared to host concerts and gigs from tomorrow only to have to close again, "now adds to the growing mountain of debts accrued by those venues working within the Government guidelines.”

A spokesperson from digital consultancy Publicis Sapient commented: “Businesses cross-sector will likely feel the aftershocks of today’s announcement.

"The rising cases in England will do little for already-low consumer confidence and fears over personal health and safety, and will be a setback in encouraging people into stores, restaurants and leisure facilities. This in turn, will offer another blow to the already bruised UK economy as it crawls towards recovery."

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