Successful economies are built on confidence. With our economy re-emerging after 16 months of hibernation, confidence and progression are critical. The government’s decision to move England to Step 4 of the roadmap was the right one. But rather than opening-up the economy, the ‘pingdemic’ has started closing it down.
While this was surely not the government’s intention it appears to be the consequence of an internal compromise of competing perspectives. The Step 4 announcement was constructed without consultation with the outside world – firms especially – who could have immediately identified the unintended consequences. Throughout the crisis, a more consultative approach, for example on workplace guidance and JRS, has allowed the government to anticipate outcomes and therefore make better policy, better communicated, and better adopted.
We must learn the lessons from this and adopt a different kind of balance going forward – a balance that boosts the confidence of the public rather than policymakers. The confidence of workers to go to work; of customers to go to shops; and of businesses to reopen. This means confidently opening the economy whilst also boosting public confidence to participate in it.
This is what should guide us going forward in the face of new variants, new waves, and a possible winter flu escalation. We must always be guided by the medical experts, but in a highly vaccinated population, we must learn to live with the virus.
Counter to the government’s position of July, there are several more tools available than just self-isolation. As long we rely on this one tool, we will never be able to live confidently with the virus.
To achieve this shared goal, the CBI has argued that we need a new settlement for how to live with the virus based on three key principles:
- Using mass-testing to stop mass self-isolation
- Utilising all ‘COVID secure’ tools available to build employee and customer confidence
- Maximising our world leading vaccine programme
The commitment from the CBI is to maximise the input and evidence base from across our membership to work with the government, and the devolved administrations to build on the proposal outlined above and develop a common, balanced approach to living with the virus.
Principle One: Using mass-testing to stop mass self-isolation
Self-isolation is an incredibly important tool to be used very precisely in the fight against the virus. But the current policy, including the overly restrictive exemptions list, is not working. Instead of opening-up the economy, it has been closing it down and undermining the test and trace system itself.
Mass testing is an alternative which would allow us to live confidently with the virus.. As we have seen from the recent study conducted amongst secondary schools by the University of Oxford, daily testing proved to be just as effective in controlling school transmission as the current 10-day isolation policy.
Principle One: Recommendations
Develop a test and release scheme to end self-isolation:
- Allow a lateral flow test to immediately release those who are double vaccinated from self-isolation
- For those who aren’t, daily contact testing over a period of days (the number of which to be determined by scientific advice) should act as the trigger for release from self-isolation.
Deliver an effective testing regime that works for all businesses:
- Expand the daily contact testing pilot into close contact services such as manufacturing, logistics, hospitality, and other affected sectors
- Extend government funded workplace testing scheme and work with industries, such as retail, to develop a system of ‘at home’ testing to support those businesses operating across multiple sites
- Maintain government funded community testing to support business efforts to drive confidence and safety.
Principle Two: Utilising all ‘COVID secure’ tools available to build employee and customer confidence
Throughout the pandemic, maintaining personal safety has been a shared objective between business, employees, and the government. Last summer’s ‘COVID secure’ workplace guidance showed the value of government guidance supporting responsible business, underpinned by clear communication with employees, driving confidence and consensus. This must continue to form the basis of how we learn to live confidently with the virus. Critical to this will be using all the ‘COVID secure’ tools available to build employee and customer confidence.
Health experts have consistently advised that face coverings can play a key role in reducing the spread of the virus, keeping firms and our economy running. By providing a visible sign of preventing transmission they are also an important tool in boosting the public’s confidence that they can travel and work safely.
The government has also outlined their intention to introduce mandatory COVID Status Certificates in certain environments from September. Irrespective of their differing perspectives on the merits of such an approach, business is united in their belief that the introduction of any prospective scheme, including relevant guidance, should be done in partnership with business and other stakeholders to ensure ease of access, ease of use and ease of implementation.
Finally, there is the question of international travel. Of course, public health must be front of mind on any decisions. But we can’t be first on vaccines, and last on reopening international travel. It is imperative that business and the government work together to rebuild confidence as we establish new travel norms while living with the virus. We are also lagging behind our competitors in allowing for business travel which seems particularly economically harmful.
Overall, the government needs to recognise that businesses are diligent in implementing COVID safety measures to mobilise staff and engage customers alike. By being at the frontline of implementing government measures, businesses can better advise how to do so effectively.
Principle Two: Recommendations
Maintain COVID-secure workplace restrictions and safety measures, including hygiene and ventilation, to keep employees safe and to build confidence.
- HSE should provide guidance to the government on the workplace scenarios where these should be mandated
- This guidance should not include ‘capacity restricting’ measures, such as the 1metre+ rule.
Develop a workable COVID Status Certification scheme as an additional tool to manage risk in large venues. This should be:
- Based on either proof of vaccination, a negative coronavirus test result, or natural immunity
- Utilised only for large venues with high volumes of attendees – sports stadiums, concert halls (not to be used for retail or hospitality)
- Aligned with existing COVID policies already at play such as testing, vaccinations, and international travel
- Developed with business with clear criteria for when and how certification should be employed, including business-specific legal counsel and help for monitoring and enforcement
- Science-led and time-limited, with clarity on the scheme’s purpose, timelines for implementation and review.
Mandatory guidance for face coverings in continuous close contact settings:
- Where individuals are likely to be close contact with others that they do not know and are in an enclosed/indoor space for a continuous period of time. This would not include hospitality
- Such settings could include logistics hubs, airport terminals, public transport or whilst queuing to enter a venue
- These measures should be reviewed throughout the autumn, taking into account the prevalence of the virus in society, the uptake of the vaccine and vaccine booster, and the deployment of other tools for managing risk.
Adopt an effective risk-based approach to enabling and building confidence in international travel:
- Take a truly risk-based approach to international travel rules, adding more low-risk countries to the green list as-soon-as-possible and providing early notice of potential changes in categorisation
- Work with airlines, airports, and UK Border Force to ensure COVID status checks for inbound travellers are conducted as smoothly and early as possible, including conducting pre-flight checks
- Utilise university students and recent graduates to check COVID documents in arrival halls, supervised by Border Force officials before passengers proceed to immigration checks
- Widen the list of those able to avoid self-isolation on their return, to individuals who have received UK approved vaccines, rather than just those who received NHS vaccines
- Provide further economic support to the international travel sector while restrictions persist and curtail passenger numbers, enabling the sector to remain competitive with global peers.
Principle Three: Maximising our world leading vaccine programme
The vaccine roll-out has been the stand-out success of the government’s response to the pandemic. It is also an example of how the power of the state can combine with the ingenuity and agility of business to deliver transformative change.
46m people have had their first vaccine dose (nearly 90% of the adult population) and more than 37m ) about 70% of adults have had both doses. The number of doses administered each day is now significantly below the peak of 500,000 reach in mid-March. Finishing the job of delivering on the vaccine rollout will play a key part of how we learn to live confidently with the virus.
Principle Three: Recommendations
Support vaccination uptake rates particularly amongst groups where take-up is low.
- Create a clear communication campaign from the government on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine
- Firms could leverage their internal networks and communication vehicles to support the vaccination delivery effort. For example, large employers could consider holding organised vaccine days, as has been done in other countries.
Government and business to work together to deliver a world leading vaccine ‘booster’ programme in the autumn.
- Businesses should continue to show flexibility in supporting employees to get their vaccine/booster vaccine during working hours to encourage take-up.
Supercharge the Therapeutics Taskforce.
- Government should prioritise and work at speed with business to enable the Therapeutics Taskforce to identify and clinically trial and approve repurposed drugs and new drugs / treatments for COVID-19.
It should be said that most businesses would rather not have any of these restrictions in place. But they recognise that they are a preferable alternative to the mass self-isolation regime implemented this summer. They are also only likely to accept them if they participate in shaping them for effective implementation. The government must return to ‘in advance’ business consultation in order to create better policy, implemented properly.