The British government has come under harsh criticism for launching Plan B coronavirus restrictions, with some critics accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of trying to “save his own skin” by announcing the curbs as a diversion from the week’s political scandals.
The government is facing increasing pressure to relaunch furlough and other emergency financial support schemes after imposing working from home orders in England due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Business leaders and unions warned that if the government fails to provide assistance to companies and their workers in the hardest-hit sectors of the economy, progress made since the easing of pandemic restrictions earlier this fall might be squandered.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson announced measures to contain the spread of the Omicron variant.
According to the new announcement, from Monday, December 13, everyone who can work from home has been advised to do so. And from Friday, December 10, face masks have been reintroduced to most indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas.
Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, called on the government to “stand shoulder to shoulder with business and provide a package of support to ensure that we get through a challenging winter without serious damage to our economic recovery.”
Meanwhile, Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said, “Requiring people to work from home over the busy Christmas period will hit jobs – unless ministers bring back furlough. Cleaners, receptionists, conference and banqueting staff and hospitality and retail workers will be short of work if people don’t come into offices.”
“Ministers must reassure workers in hard-hit sectors like hospitality, leisure and travel that their livelihoods are secure.”
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of transport union TSSA, said that many more workers are going to badly affected by the new curbs.
“The government must bring back the furlough job retention scheme to ensure no one loses their jobs as a result of the new restrictions.”
Matthew Fell, chief policy director at the CBI, called the fresh restrictions a “big setback for businesses,” especially in hospitality, retail and transport.
“It will be vital that the impact of these restrictions is closely monitored, and that the government is ready with targeted support as required,” he said.
Hotels, restaurants and others had already reported a wave of Christmas party cancellations, while tighter controls on foreign trips have resulted in travel and tourism firms suffering a drop in winter holiday bookings.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, questioned the timing of Johnson’s announcement amid allegations the prime minister’s own staff broke lockdown rules last year.
“Is this sound evidence-based public policymaking, or is this an attempt to move the news agenda on from a damaging story about the Downing Street Christmas party?”
He went to say that what the premier is doing is “to save his own skin.”
Hospitality industry leaders said mixed messages from the government had already impacted the industry.
Alex Proud, owner of the three Proud Cabaret venues in London and Brighton, said there had been a decrease in bookings, while the passport scheme would trigger further cancellations.
“This is armageddon for us. It’s a disaster that doesn’t need to happen.”
The launch of tougher controls such as the closure of non-essential retail, hospitality and schools would trigger a 3% decrease in GDP in January, said Paul Dales, chief UK economist at the consultancy Capital Economics.