CBI chief warns of ‘bleak’ winter for businesses due to impact of lockdown

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The head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has condemned the way the Government has handled major announcements such as England’s lockdown.

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulled out of an appearance at the group’s annual conference.

CBI director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said firms could not act on the basis of “speculation and leaks and surmise”, demanded more clarity on the Government’s strategy and called for ministers to improve the coronavirus testing system.

She warned it would be “unconscionable” to end the post-Brexit transition period without a trade deal at the end of the year at a time when firms in the UK and across Europe are battling the economic impact of the second wave of coronavirus.

The outgoing CBI chief, in her final keynote speech at the organisation’s conference, said England’s second lockdown will be “truly devastating for business”, with many companies having already invested millions to make their premises Covid-safe.

She said they face a “bleak” winter, adding: “This is the run-up to Christmas, it’s the most important time for so many firms.”

Compared to the first lockdown, there is likely to be “lower compliance” with the rules, there are political divisions and less trust, she said.

Dame Carolyn set out what she believes Mr Johnson and his ministers need to do:

– Keep as much of the economy open as possible – and that could mean “challenging guidance that isn’t evidence-based”, for example, the expected ban on takeaway alcohol sales that will result on “thousands of gallons of beer poured down drains”.

– Recognise the Covid-safety of workplaces and keep as much of the economy open as possible.

– Provide financial support “for the duration” of the crisis, with particular help for areas such as aviation.

– Give clarity on exit plans, the triggers for easing lockdown and the support that will be available.

– Use the lockdown as a breathing space to “get our ducks in a row” on issues such as rapid mass testing.

– Improve communications because “businesses can’t act on the basis of speculation and leaks and surmise, this has to get a lot better”.

With talks on a post-Brexit trade deal continuing but time running short to reach a deal, Dame Carolyn stressed the need for an agreement.

“It would be unconscionable to unleash a no-deal Brexit on the countries of Europe, the UK and the European Union, as we are facing this vicious second wave,” she said.

“I’ve always felt and argued that a good deal was an economic necessity.

“I now think it’s a moral necessity as well.”

CBI president Lord Bilimoria revealed on Monday morning that the Prime Minister had pulled out of the conference and was being replaced by Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is absolutely normal, in the history of the CBI, for the Prime Minister of the day to address the annual conference.

“To my knowledge this has only not happened once in history.

“He is not going to be addressing us this morning.

“However, we are hopeful that at some stage he will engage with us.”

Mr Sharma said the Prime Minister was “entirely focused on the response to Covid” but he would be “making remarks to this conference” at some point over the coming days.

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