Plan B restrictions 'huge cost to swathes of Suffolk businesses'
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
The government's Plan B measures "could risk the fragile recovery" of "significant parts of the Suffolk economy," the county's chamber of commerce has said.
The new restrictions, which were announced by the Prime Minister on Wednesday, include people working from home 'if they can' as of Monday.
They are part of efforts to control the Omicron variant, of which cases in the UK are now going up "incredibly fast" said chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.
Paul Simon, head of policy and communications at Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: "Once again, in spite of repeated requests from Suffolk Chamber and others for sight of prospective contingency plans from the government, local businesses are now being asked to make changes at the very last minute.
"These restrictions will also impact on consumer behaviour with knock-on effects which could risk the fragile recovery, order books and revenues of significant parts of the Suffolk economy, not least in the hard-pressed retail, leisure and hospitality sectors.
"A return to advice that staff should work from home ‘where they can’ will come at a huge cost to swathes of local businesses."
He said while many firms now have well-established remote or hybrid working practices, there will be many more that would be "badly affected" by reduced footfall in our major centres such as Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich and smaller market towns.
He added the requirement for customers to show COVID passports would prove difficult for businesses to implement and police effectively without comprehensive support and clear guidance.
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"The full backing of government and authorities is needed in enforcing this policy which can often put staff at risk of harassment or even violence," he said.
Mark Cordell, chief executive of the Bury St Edmunds Business Improvement District (BID) Our Bury St Edmunds, did not believe the changes announced on December 8 would have a great deal of impact on the majority of their businesses.
He added: "Hopefully it will be just a short-term situation with these restrictions being lifted early in the New Year."
Controlling virus spread while also avoiding 'unduly damaging' restrictions
A government spokesperson said: "We’re taking the action set out in our Winter Plan to help control the virus’s spread - while avoiding unduly damaging economic and social restrictions.
“Our £400billion Covid support package will continue to help businesses into spring next year and we will continue to respond proportionately to the changing path of the virus, as we have done since the start of the pandemic."
Mr Simon said the Suffolk Chamber welcomed the "sensible step" to allow contacts of Omicron cases to leave self-isolation dependent on daily negative lateral flow test results.
"This will give businesses of all sorts, including manufacturers, a chance to maintain staff levels at a time when these are already strained by labour shortages and will help to avoid another ‘pingdemic’.”
Will lots of office staff be vacating Ipswich town centre?
Councils and businesses like AXA Insurance are among the major employers to have offices in central Ipswich, but rather than a huge exodus of office-based staff from the town centre many have already been working from home since the pandemic.
And councils said many of their teams, like refuse collectors, street cleaners, social workers and firefighters, work out in the community anyway.
A spokesperson for Ipswich Borough Council said: "Since our leisure venues and theatres have reopened relevant employees have worked from those venues too.
"The council will be following the new guidance announced yesterday [Wednesday]. In practical terms, the vast majority of office-based council employees have been working from home since the pandemic started."
A spokesperson for Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils also said many of their staff had continued to work at home to deliver services since the start of the pandemic.
AXA has nearly 700 employees in Ipswich.
AXA's head of people engagement, culture and strategy, Zoe Ashdown, said while from Monday most AXA employees would be working from home, many staff were already doing this due to the company's flexible working policy.
“However, our offices will continue to be open for those who either can’t work from home or where their personal wellbeing is improved in the office setting," she added.
The ability to work from an office, for those staff that can't work from home, is an option for many employees, including at Suffolk County Council.