Businesses ask for clarity amid confusion over UK lockdown

The government has been asked for urgent clarification about which companies will remain open during the coronavirus lockdown amid widespread confusion across Britain, as some employers force staff to keep working.

Business groups and unions called on ministers to provide more specific guidance after Boris Johnson ordered the closure of all non-essential shops with immediate effect on Monday.

Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, tweeted: “It’s clear that many firms do not know whether to stay open or to close.” She said she would meet the business secretary and request better guidance.

Off-licences added to essential businesses list during UK lockdown

The warnings come amid widespread confusion among businesses about how to respond to the coronavirus lockdown. Halfords, the car parts, bike and servicing group, is reopening some of its stores this week after being designated an essential service, even though it had closed its shops on Monday night as Johnson addressed the nation.

Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct retail chain had intended to remain open but was forced to backtrack after a public outcry.

Frances O’Grady, the director general of the TUC, said the government needed to crack down on non-essential companies making staff attend work, telling ministers they needed to directly intervene if employers flouted the rules.

“Companies like Sports Direct shouldn’t be putting their profits before people’s lives. No one in non-essential services should be forced to go to work. And no one should be sacked for following official instructions and staying home,” she said.

Off-licences and other shops licensed to sell alcohol are now allowed to stay open, after an 11th-hour change, while several companies are lobbying ministers to be allowed special treatment.

It is understood that many business leaders are privately furious with ministers for allowing confusion to fester, as they had worked with the government in recent weeks to develop the lockdown plans.

Rachel Reeves, the Labour chair of the Commons business select committee, said clarity was urgently needed. Within hours of the prime minister’s announcement, the committee received more than 600 messages from concerned workers, including office-based staff, furniture manufacturers, travel agents, estate agents, law firms and TV engineers.

Writing in a letter to the business secretary, Alok Sharma, she said: “When workers are coming forward in their droves to say they are being forced to go to work or that their employer is simply not offering enough support to help them work safely, then it’s vital the government comes forward with immediate clarification.”

There has also been confusion over the emergency financial support available to businesses. Rain Newton-Smith, the chief economist at the CBI, said the government had made great strides over the past week to help struggling firms but warned there were still many slipping through the cracks.

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She said some firms were too big to access the business interruption loan scheme for small companies but were not large enough to easily access a lending programme run by the Bank of England for big companies.

“We’re working closely with government to see what facility would work best to support cashflow in these vital businesses at speed and protect jobs around the UK,” Newton-Smith said.

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