Businesses and workers in Wales and Ireland are bracing themselves for tighter restrictions on activities as both administrations introduce lockdowns to halt the growing number of coronavirus infections and slow the progress of the pandemic
The Welsh government has announced a national coronavirus firebreak to be introduced on Friday, described as a fortnight-long action to save lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
The fire-break will start at 6pm on Friday 23 October and end on Monday 9 November. It will apply to everyone living in Wales and will replace the local restrictions which are in force in some parts of the country.
The Welsh government will provide a package of almost £300m to support businesses, which will complement wage-support schemes available from the UK government.
Every business covered by the small business rates relief will receive a £1,000 payment. Small and medium-sized retail, leisure and hospitality businesses, which have to close will receive a one-off payment of up to £5,000.
There will also be additional discretionary grants and support for smaller businesses, which are struggling.
The previously announced £80m fund to help businesses develop in the longer term, will be increased to £100m with £20m ring-fenced for tourism and hospitality.
Businesses will also be able to access the support available through the existing coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS) or the new expanded job support scheme (JSS).
Wales’ first minister has written to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, asking for Welsh businesses to have early access to JSS from Friday and has offered to pay the extra costs.
Under the new rules, people must stay at home, except for very limited purposes, such as for exercise, and must not visit other households or meet other people they do not live with either indoors and outdoors.
No gatherings will be allowed outdoors, such as Halloween or fireworks/Bonfire night or other organised activities.
People must work from home wherever possible. All non-food retail, hospitality businesses, including cafes, restaurants and pubs (unless they provide take-away or delivery services), close contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, and events and tourism businesses, such as hotels must close.
Community centres, libraries and recycling centres will be required to close but local parks, playgrounds and outdoor gyms will remain open.
Face coverings must be worn in indoor public spaces, which remain open, including on public transport and in taxis.
Primary and special schools will re-open as normal after half-term. Secondary schools will re-open after the half-term for children in years seven and eight and most vulnerable children.
Universities will provide a blend of in-person and online learning, while childcare settings will stay open as normal.
Following the end of the firebreak, a new set of national rules will be introduced, covering how people can meet and how the public sector and businesses operate.
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said: ‘This fire-break is our best chance of regaining control of the virus and avoiding a much longer – and damaging – national lockdown. We have a small window of opportunity to act.
‘We must come together once again to stay ahead of this virus and to save lives.’
Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said: ‘Although Wales had been less flexible about working from home than other areas of the UK, never really moving from advice that those who could work from home should do so, any apparent flexibility has, temporarily, been removed.
‘For non-essential offices, this means that all employees who can work from home will need to be permitted to.
‘While this may not be welcome news for employers, they will presumably have responded to this call back in March and may, this time, be in a more prepared position to react to it.
‘As back in March, businesses are also once again being asked to close across Wales. If staff cannot work from home, employers may be able to make once again use of the furlough scheme, subject to eligibility, before it ends on 31 October.
‘They may also be able to use the new JSS from 1 November. Whilst Wales’ first minister has hinted at plans to bring forward the new scheme to use from this Friday in the country, this is still to be confirmed by the UK government.
‘The fact that this so-called circuit break lockdown is scheduled for half term may help to mitigate the impact of staff needing to facilitate childcare, with many of them likely already having done so in preparation for this.
‘That said, it is essential to remember that previously made plans for childcare may need to change due to the new rules. There is no doubt that child care issues are still likely, and employers will need to consider flexibility, and legal rights afforded to parents, over this period.
‘Unlike the March lockdown, this one does at least have a time limit; it will last until 9 November and will not continue past this date.
‘However, what further restrictions the Welsh government will put into place remain to be seen. What is clear is that the coronavirus crisis is far from over, and we will likely see many more announcements of this nature.’
The Irish government has also announced tougher restrictions, having been advised that the evidence of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead is now too strong.
As a result, from midnight on Wednesday night, the whole country will move to level 5 of Ireland’s framework for living with Covid-19 for a period of six weeks.
Given the worsening situation, the government has agreed that the moratorium on evictions be reinstated and that pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) and the employee wage subsidy scheme (EWSS) be amended to reflect these challenges.
Under the new measures, people are asked to stay at home and should work from home unless providing an essential service for which their physical presence is required.
People will be permitted to exercise within a radius of 5 km of their home, but there will be a penalty for movement outside 5km of home, with exemptions to this for essential work and essential purposes.
There should be no visits to other people’s homes or gardens. However, there will be the concept of an extended household (or support bubble) for defined categories of individuals to support those at risk of social isolation and/or mental ill-health.
It is possible to meet with one other household in an outdoor setting which is not a home or garden, such as a park, including for exercise, but no social/family gatherings should take place, with the exemptions to this for weddings and funerals with numbers limited.
Essential retail and essential services will remain open, as will schools, early learning and childcare services.
Public transport will operate at 25% capacity for the purposes of allowing those providing essential services to get to work.
Bars, cafes, restaurants and wet pubs may provide take-away and delivery services only. Wet pubs in Dublin remain closed. Hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs may remain open, but only to support provision of essential services.
Construction work has been deemed as essential and will continue during this phase, while most manufacturing will also remain open.
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said: ‘I want the whole country to know that we will be supporting this effort to suppress the virus again with enhanced financial supports for individuals and businesses.’