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What the government’s plan to lift lockdown means for small businesses

5-minute read

Sam Bromley

24 February 2021

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The government has set out its plan to gradually ease lockdown in England. But what does it mean for small businesses and the self-employed?

The government has planned a cautious ‘roadmap’ out of the current restrictions. It’s announced key dates that businesses can look forward to – with the caveat that the impact of each stage of easing will be measured against four tests.

What are the ‘four tests’?

The government says that “decisions on easing restrictions will be led by data rather than dates” and one way it's going to do that will be by measuring each stage against four tests:

  • test 1 – the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully
  • test 2 – evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated
  • test 3 – infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations, which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS
  • test 4 – the assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants

The plan states that it takes four weeks for the data to show the impact of easing restrictions, and the government has committed to giving the public and businesses a week’s notice before any changes.

This is why there’ll be at least five weeks between each stage of the roadmap, and why the dates hinge on the caveat no earlier than. Find out when your business might be able to open below.

Roadmap reaction from key business groups

The roadmap has been welcomed by key business groups for providing clarity. Mike Cherry, Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “This roadmap provides some much-needed clarity for small businesses in England, which have faced an incredibly tough year. The Government’s commitment to helping small firms and sole traders access testing and its recognition of the plight faced by suppliers are welcome.

“It’s important for this plan to protect against a fourth Covid wave and accompanying lockdown, the imposition of which would be devastating for the 250,000 firms that fear closure this year. Small businesses are clear that recovery depends on an accelerating vaccine programme, access to an improved testing infrastructure for firms of all sizes, the safe return of schools, and the right safety measures within businesses."

Craig Beaumont, also from the FSB, spoke to the Financial Times and welcomed the end of the confusing regional 'tier' system. He said: "Businesses need to get things ready for reopening – it cannot happen overnight."

However, while some groups welcomed the cautious plan for reopening, many businesses – including those in leisure and hospitality – still face a difficult few months, as the country remains largely in lockdown. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “This delay in reopening will make the job of survival all the more difficult for businesses only just clinging on to existence. It is much more than just an inconvenience for many employers in our sector, it is another delay that they cannot afford and, for too many, will not be able to survive.”

Life after lockdown ‘roadmap’ – key dates for businesses

The plan has separate steps for a gradual reopening. The idea is that the country as a whole will get back to normal gradually, rather than returning to the ‘tier’ system, as long as there’s no “significant regional disparity” in the spread of coronavirus.

Gradual easing may be combined with extended coronavirus business support schemes – we’ll find out more in the Budget announcement on 3 March.

For example, the government is expected to announce the future of support like the furlough scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Grant (SEISS).

While the government wants to look at data and not dates, it’s still given a tentative timeline for easing:

Step 1 – from 8 March

The priority for this step is on schools reopening, which will happen on 8 March. This is good news for self-employed people who’ve been juggling childcare responsibilities while running a business.

While England will largely remain in lockdown, fitness and exercise businesses should take note that on 29 March, outdoor sport and leisure facilities can open, and organised outdoor sport will be allowed. You can also meet outdoors with up to six people, or two separate households.

Step 2 – no earlier than 12 April

This step contains the first significant strides towards reopening the country after lockdown, as these businesses will be able to start operating again:

  • non-essential retail
  • indoor leisure (e.g. gyms and spas)
  • personal care services (e.g. hairdressers, barbers, salons)
  • outdoor hospitality (e.g. pubs and restaurants)
  • outdoor attractions (e.g. zoos, theme parks, drive-in cinemas)

You should still minimise travel and work from home where possible – although domestic overnight stays are allowed, as is the ability to use self-contained accommodation (for instance, where there are no shared facilities).

The rule of six, or two households, still applies to outdoor mixing.

Step 3 – no earlier than 17 May

The plan says that in step three, 30 people can meet outdoors and “all but the most high-risk sectors will be able to reopen” – this includes:

  • remaining outdoor entertainment (e.g. performances, cinemas, outdoor theatres)
  • indoor entertainment and attractions (e.g. museums, cinemas, children’s play areas)
  • indoor hospitality
  • remaining accommodations (hotels, hostels, B&Bs)
  • adult indoor group sports and exercise classes
  • some large events (with capacity limits)
  • most significant life events, with a 30-person limit (e.g. weddings)

With the government constantly reviewing the data (for example on vaccine efficacy), it says that it’ll update its guidance on social distancing between friends and family no later than this stage.

But it does expect to allow the rule of six (or two households) indoors, subject to that review.

Step 4 – no earlier than 21 June

The last step involves all legal limits on social contact and life events being removed, with the public being encouraged to take full responsibility for protecting ourselves and our loved ones.

Remaining closed business will be able to open, including:

  • nightclubs
  • large performances and events (e.g. large theatre performances, festivals)

The government also wants to ensure “a safe and sustainable return to international travel, for business and pleasure” and believes that vaccinations are a route to that return. It seems that international travel and restrictions will be under review over the next few months.

When are shops reopening?

No earlier than 12 April. All retail will be able to open in step two, after the impact of step one is assessed. The government will give businesses a week’s notice.

The government notes the importance of non-essential retail in the plan, saying that it employs around 1.2 million people and was estimated to be worth £44.6 billion of Gross Value Added in the UK in 2019.

Libraries and community centres can also open in step two.

When are gyms reopening?

No earlier than 12 April. Indoor leisure facilities can open in step two, apart from saunas and steam rooms, which can open in step three.

When are pubs and restaurants reopening?

No earlier than 12 April for outdoor service and no earlier than 17 May for indoor hospitality.

When hospitality does reopen, businesses won’t be required to serve a substantial meal alongside alcohol, and there won’t be a curfew. However, it’ll still be table service only.

Businesses will be given a week’s notice before they can reopen – and each step may be delayed, depending on the impact of the previous step.

When are hairdressers and barbers reopening?

No earlier than 12 April. Personal care premises can open in step two, alongside non-essential retail and gyms, but this may be delayed depending on the impact of step one. Businesses will be given a week’s notice.

Personal care premises include businesses like hairdressers, barbers, salons, and other close contact services. The government notes that personal care activities accounted for £21.1 billion in the UK in 2019.

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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