How Will Freedom Day Affect UK Businesses In The Months Ahead?
With supermarkets warning of empty shelves, 500,000 being told to self-isolate, and even the UK’s health secretary and prime minister having to confine themselves away indoors, July 19 wasn't the “freedom day” that many of us had in mind.
Freedom day was perhaps most highly anticipated by UK businesses, who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. During the start of the UK’s third lockdown, BP reported losses of $5.7 billion as demand for oil plummeted, and a report by Simply Business estimated that the pandemic will cost small UK businesses a whopping £126.6 billion. Yet, for many businesses, it appears that the impact of freedom day may actually be a negative one, as business owners are largely left to negotiate the challenges of the pandemic alone.
The Return To The Office
As of July 19, the English government is no longer instructing people to work from home if they can, meaning freedom day marked the return to the office for many businesses. In the coming months, the move is likely to bring more footfall into city centre business, such as coffee shops and cafes, whose customer base is primarily office workers. These types of city centre businesses have been heavily disrupted by the shift to remote-based working. The World Coffee Portal‘s Project Café UK 2021 report revealed that the pandemic set sales in this sector back to 2013 levels. Almost £2 billion was wiped from the market value.
However, with covid cases in the UK rapidly on the rise once again, the return to the office means reintroducing the risk of spreading the virus throughout the company. Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, has urged employers to keep necessary safety measures in place to give workers confidence in the workplace. Cheese also said that businesses shouldn’t automatically rush back to the old way of doing things, arguing that remote-working has a positive impact on employees health and well-being, inclusion, and productivity.
Anxiety Amongst Businesses And Employees
A recent poll by Simply Business has revealed that, for many SMEs and the self-employed, the passing of freedom day generated mixed feelings. 53% of those polled said they believed that social distancing restrictions were being lifted too soon. As such, many small businesses up and down the country will keep masks and social distancing measures in place for the time being. However, as the government has now left mask-wearing to public discretion, it is likely that many businesses will encounter increased resistance from those that are opposed to masks, using up both the time and energy of staff members.
The anxiety surrounding freedom day also extends to office workers. Research by Anxiety UK found that 18% of employees were anxious about the potential return to the office, with 24% stating they were happy with their new at-home work routines. Poor mental health reduces productivity within the workplace and is a major cause of sick leave. If staff members have anxiety around returning to the office, a decline in productivity, and thus company profits, is certainly a possibility for businesses who have chosen to return to the office post freedom day.
As covid cases continue to rise, “pingdemic” is yet another covid-related term that is entering into our vocabularies. A growing number of businesses across the UK, including supermarkets, pubs, and small retailers, are facing staff shortages that threaten their operations. Suffolk-based pub chain Greene King had to temporarily close 33 of its pubs last week due to the vast number of staff members required to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. Although the lockdown saw huge financial losses for businesses, the pingdemic is proving to have a similar effect for many.
Commenting on the increasing issue of the pingdemic, Liam McNeill, vice president, EMEA at UKG, said: “The recently coined “pingdemic”, where folks are notified of possible exposure from the NHS Covid-19 app and told to self-isolate, is causing yet another wave of workforce disruption. Short notice or unplanned absenteeism is a main challenge in almost any workforce and can be addressed and alleviated with a modern workforce management solution that can quickly identify the next available person with appropriate skills to fill a shift. However, as the unpredictable “pingdemic” grows, businesses large and small are grappling with swaths of their staff in quarantine and have had no choice but to temporarily close down as we’ve seen happen with Iceland and Greene King.”
Some will undoubtedly be pleased to see the lifting of most covid restrictions in England, particularly businesses such as nightclubs which have been forced to close their doors since March last year. However, for many business owners, the final lifting of coronavirus restrictions already appears to be failing to deliver the relief that had long been hoped for. As the government passes the duty of infection control on to companies and the general public, many businesses may find that they struggle to plan their cause of action in the coming months.