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19 July 2021

Why “freedom day” is a business gamble as well as a public health one

As some sectors embrace the unlocking, others are suffering dramatic staff shortages due to rising cases. 

By Will Dunn

Despite a steeply rising infection rate, warnings from NHS Trusts that hospitals that are already overcrowded and the horror of the scientific community, the government takes its boldest step yet today in pretending that the global pandemic is over by lifting all remaining legal restrictions on gatherings, mask wearing and social distancing.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

[See also: Boris Johnson needs to be honest: “living with Covid” does not mean normality]

For some businesses, the fact that the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire is only a problem because the Test and Trace programme is telling us it’s happening. Charlie Mullins, the chair of Pimlico Plumbers, has a solution to the fact that more than half a million people were advised to self-isolate last week: “people need to delete the [Test and Trace] app from their phones”, advised the noted epidemiologist plumbing company owner.  

Fortunately, other businesses are more cautious. A poll of 1,373 managers released by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) this morning finds that half the UK’s managers think the government is lifting restrictions too early, and 76 per cent of businesses plan to keep Covid safety measures in place. 

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[See also: The “pingdemic” is a symptom of the UK’s problems, not the cause]

“Many employees think ‘Freedom Day’ has arrived too soon,” said the CMI’s chief executive, Ann Francke. “The lack of clarity and consistency in government messaging has left managers confused and anxious.”  

Similarly, supermarkets and other shops such as Primark and Waterstones have decided that their customers will feel safer, and more likely to spend with them, if they publicly encourage people to wear masks. Others, such as Timpson and Screwfix, have stated that wearing a mask will be a “personal choice” for their customers. 

Without a government position for everyone to follow, companies in sectors such as manufacturing could face staff shortages of the sort seen at Nissan and Rolls-Royce last week, when hundreds of staff were told to self-isolate. These shortages will be caused by other businesses – such as retail and hospitality – taking the opportunity to profit from greater public freedom. 

Businesses can’t be blamed for doing what they need to do to stay afloat in these circumstances, but by making infection control the problem of companies and private individuals, the government removes their ability to plan for stability and causes them to focus on what’s possible now. This is a gamble not just with public health, but with the shape that businesses will be in when other pandemic measures – such as the furlough scheme – come to an end.  

[See also: Why the UK’s new Covid-19 strategy is uniquely dangerous]