As the daily number of new coronavirus cases shows signs of abating, minds are turning to the question of when the lockdown restrictions will be eased, so as to allow the resumption of business activity and the restoration of something approaching economic normalcy.
The Prime Minister is clear that, while he understands people’s growing impatience to get back to work, he will take no risks that might result in a second outbreak, the overwhelming of the NHS and even greater loss of life.
I know from my constituency casework just how much businesses are currently suffering. To support them, the Chancellor has put in place a huge range of measures to mitigate the lockdown’s impact. Grants and loan schemes have been set up, and companies have been given the means to furlough employees, protecting them from redundancy. The long-term cost to the public purse will be enormous, but for the moment the priority must be simple survival.
One of the sectors most seriously affected by the lockdown is tourism. Here in North Wales, a great number of businesses, large and small, have the bleak and unappealing prospect of potentially losing an entire season’s trade. Even if the restrictions are partially lifted in June, as has been speculated, half the season will have gone, and it will take some time for confidence to be restored. People who have been told to maintain social distancing will not be in a hurry to return to crowded bars and restaurants.
The grant scheme for the leisure and retail sector has provided some relief for tourism, though the proprietors of many legitimate holiday rental businesses have found it difficult to obtain their grants because of the suggestion that some of the money was going to the owners of second homes. The convoluted grant guidelines issued by the Welsh Government to local authorities only added to the confusion. Thankfully, sensible authorities such as Conwy have decided to exercise their own discretion in deciding whether or not award grants. I hope others will follow suit.
The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme proved difficult to access for some smaller businesses. Recognising the problem, the Chancellor has now introduced a system of “bounce back loans” tailored to the needs of smaller enterprises. Under the new scheme, available from Monday next, businesses will be able to apply for the loans, free of interest for the first 12 months, up to the value of 25 per cent of their turnover, with a limit of £50,000. The loans will be fully guaranteed by the Government, which should ensure that the money gets to borrowers with the minimum possible delay.
Constituents tell me that they appreciate the support they have had from the Government. But their anxiety will continue until such time as the lockdown restrictions have been fully lifted and confidence has returned to the economy. And sadly, for so long as the virus remains at large, the interests of public health demand that at least some restrictions must remain in force.