Monday, 11 May 2020

Businesses need clear guidance on lifting the lockdown, not waffle

There are enough armchair experts pontificating on what Boris should or shouldn't do for the country. As I'm not an expert, I have refrained from getting too involved in writing lengthy tomes on my blog on how the country should be run in these difficult times. However, I run a business. I have twelve people who work for me. I have over 6,000 regular customers, all of whom see making music as a central part of their lives. Many live in flats, so cannot make the noise they need to (especially drummers), without driving the neighbours mad. We closed our business when the government introduced the lockdown. We were given no notice of the closure. We had to make all sorts of major decisions on the hoof. I had a couple of sleepless nights, working out what is the best for all. Now all of our staff apart from two are on furlough. When you have spent 40 years building a business, finding out you will have zero income for months on end is a very difficult situation to plan for. Fortunately schemes such as the furlough have lessened the blow for our staff. But now it appears we are planning to come out of the lockdown. Whilst to some extent, I can forgive Boris the panicky way he brought the lockdown in, as he was metaphorically caught with his pants down by the virus, they've had two months to plan the end of it. The roadmap should be clear and the timescales easy to understand. If they have to caveat it for unknowns, then fine, but give us some proper idea of when and how we can open. To me, the announcement last night was flawed in several ways, from the business perspective. The message wasn't clear. The timing, 7pm on a Sunday was quite unhelpful, giving some businesses less than 12 hours to prepare for a return to work. There was no clear roadmap of the wider lifting. The colour coded phasing was all very well, but the criteria could and should be clearly spelled out. What is the R rate for each phase. How many people can be infected before it is safe. When will the apps, the testing and the PPE be sorted out. Personally, I think that with chaos in the testing and PPE sector, we are not ready. Boris has stated that we need capacity in the NHS to deal with it. Without PPE and testing for everyone who needs it, we are clearly not there. This isn't a criticism, it's a statement of fact. 

We have been doing what we can for the community during lockdown. Last week, we opened our doors to be used as a distribution depot for a local relief scheme, where food parcels were bagged up.

We wish there was more we could do. The response of our local community has been amazing, and I think we can all be proud. But our response works best when we all understand the rules and messages.

Last night we had the most confusing announcement imaginable. I was hoping for some sort of sensible roadmap that would allow me to give guidance to our staff and customers. As a very niche business (or group of businesses to be technically correct), reopening will be a situation that we need to manage. If we have a degree of notice, then we can act accordingly. This means letting customers know we will be reopening, making new staff rosters, working out what we need to buy and when we need to resume refuse collections etc. When Boris announced that 'people who can't work from home, should go to work' what exactly did that mean? There is no point our staff coming to work if we are shut. As best I can understand, the announcement indicated that we should prepare to reopen in June, albeit with some sensible social; distancing measures in place. If we reopen on Monday 1st June, then what will this mean? Musicians don't generally just turn up for a band rehearsal. They need to organise it, so it will take at least a weeks notice to get anywhere near a situation where it is worth opening the doors. Of course there are considerations. Should we get the yellow tape out so that musicians know where to stand so they have 2 metres distance between them and their band mates? Should we simply allow them to use their common sense? We normally have two staff on for busy shifts.  We need to protect their wellbeing, so what procedures will we need for this? 

There are practical issues as well. How do we enforce social distancing in the toilets? One approach would be to only open our disabled toilet. That is a single occupant lavatory, whereas the male and female have two cubicles. These glamorous conundrums are key to us getting the studios open again. 

One of the major criticisms I have of Parliament is that there is virtually no one who has run a small business sitting as an MP or in cabinet. Whilst Boris was a journalist and Sir Keir Starmer a leading lawyer, none of them has ever had to worry about the logistics of keeping tea machines working, toilets unblocked and bins emptied. They won't have any concept of the joys of staff rosters and shift patterns, and they clearly don't have to worry about their customers being to scared to come to use their services. 

The one minister who has demonstrated a grip on the situation is the Chancellor. His measures have thus far saved millions of businesses. It will be difficult, but the various schemes have made a real and material difference. There is now talk that the Furlough will be scaled back. If this is done before businesses can reopen, it will all have been in vain. The scaling back can only be safely done when the income starts to roll back in. Even if people had no fear of returning, it would doubtless take us a month to get back to anything like a normal workload. Some of our staff will not be returning any time soon as they are in long term self isolation for health reasons. I am envisaging that our hours will be much shorter than they have been initially. But this is a major challenge, as we'd need to reconfigure our online booking system, a task that has costs of its own. 

I think Boris gave businesses a major headache announcing that everyone should go back to work at 7pm on a Sunday evening. How on earth can management deal with that situation. If he'd said 'from Wednesday' then that would have given everyone time to plan and work out how that could be safely implemented. Those working in construction will potentially be faced with workers turning up, before the sites have worked out safe protocols for performing tasks. 

The Federation of Small Business
I am at a loss as to who actually is advising Boris. Organisations like the TUC, CBI, FSB etc should be consulted and their feedback sought. No business deals well with sudden massive policy changes. Most businesses want a safe environment for staff and customers. They want to be treated as grown up partners by the government. I don't expect Boris to speak to me personally, but I joined the Federation of Small Business, as did hundreds of thousands of other small businesses, so that they could have a seat at the table and work with the Government to deliver policies that work for the UK economy. 

In short, the government needs to develop clear guidelines, give proper timescales and work with the organisations that represent the various sectors of the economy, for the mutual benefit of all.

Please note that I am writing this as a personal view. I am not writing it to represent the Federation of Small Business or anyone else. 

No comments: