COVID-19: Weekly UK Public Affairs Round-up

Most domestic Covid-19 legal restrictions have lifted in England, with compulsory self-isolation for double vaccinated persons due to end on Monday 16th August. The UK Government stressed this week that it is “crucial” that people continue to self-isolate when “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app. Over 600,000 people were asked to self-isolate in the last week, breaking last week’s all-time record. The number of people isolating has sparked concerns over the resilience of the UK’s food supply chain and the UK Government is facing a potential backbench rebellion over vaccine passports.

Note: This update will be the last edition of the Covid-19 UK Public Affairs Weekly Round-Up. If you or your organisation would like to continue to receive Covid-19 monitoring from FTI Consulting, please email to discuss your requirements.

Social contact restrictions end in England

19th July: Most legal restrictions on social contact were lifted in England, with no limits on household mixing, indoor events, or hospitality. Face coverings are still required in certain settings, but this is no longer required by law and is at the discretion of proprietors and the operators of services. The UK Government believes that, due to high rates of vaccination, cases will rise but serious illness and death will remain at lower levels than during earlier peaks. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that now was the “right moment” to move to the final stage of the lockdown roadmap, saying: "If we don't do it now we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?... But we've got to do it cautiously. We've got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there. Cases are rising, we can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant". The end of social contact restrictions in England came as the Prime Minister himself, along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, were forced to self-isolate following contact last week with the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19. Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer said that the end to restrictions was “reckless”, adding that the UK Government had “got virtually every big decision wrong either in substance, or timing, or both”.

Conservative MPs threaten rebellion on vaccine passports

21st July: As many as 42 Conservative MPs have indicated their potential willingness to rebel in a future vote on vaccine passports, with 42 backbenchers signing a cross-party declaration of 79 MPs and 14 peers, coordinated by the privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch. Together with the opposition parties, 40 Conservative MPs would need to rebel in order to defeat the Government. As the House of Commons rose for the Summer recess on Thursday, the earliest a vote on vaccine certification is likely to be held is September. In a virtual media briefing on Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, said: "I very much hope that if we get to a vote on this that we can take as many colleagues with us as possible. It will only have been done with the best interests of national safety.".

UK study findings add to calls for autumn booster programme

22nd July: A new study run by University College London (UCL) in partnership with the NHS has found that protective antibodies generated by both the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines start to wane as early as six weeks after the second dose, in some cases falling by more than 50% over a ten-week period. The findings follow interim advice issued last month by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) encouraging the NHS to prepare for an autumn booster programme in which a third vaccine dose would be administered. Professor Rob Aldridge, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UCL said: “Antibodies are not the perfect measure of risk; we don’t know if there’s a magic number, as it were, where the risk of infection or hospitalisation becomes important. But we think these data support the JCVI case for boosters, with priority for the clinically vulnerable, the over-70s, and all people living in residential care homes for older adults.”

“Pingdemic” sparks concerns for UK food supply and UK Government U-turn

23rd July: Record numbers of people being advised to isolate by the NHS Test and Trace app sparked concerns about the risk of food shortages, due to the number of retail workers, food industry staff, and delivery drivers being advised to self-isolate. A record 618,903 people were “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app in the last week, the second consecutive record-breaking week. Andrew Opie, Director of Food at the British Retail Consortium, said on Thursday: “The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast”. The UK Government initially resisted pressure to exempt food supply chain workers from self-isolation rules, with the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, saying on Thursday: “If you are pinged, you should self-isolate… the rules are clear, and they should be followed”. On Friday morning, the UK Goivernment changed its position, announcing that up to 10,000 supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers would be exempted from self-isolation rules. The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, told BBC Breakfast that the government had identified about 500 "key strategically important" sites in the food supply chain, including the supermarket distribution depots and some large manufacturers' facilities, and that staff at these sites would be exempt from self-isolation.

Other news

  • 17th July: Wales moved to “alert level 1”, meaning that up to 6 people can meet indoors in private homes, up to 1000 seated or 200 standing can attend organised indoor events (subject to risk assessments) and unlimited numbers can gather outdoors. The Welsh Government hopes to move to “alert level 0” on Saturday 7th August, which will bring Welsh legal restrictions into line with those in England, with the added restriction of face coverings remaining a requirement in indoors settings.
  • 19th July: Scotland moved to “level zero”, the lowest level of Covid-19 restrictions on the Scottish Government’s roadmap. Under the level zero restrictions, up to eight adults from up to four households may meet indoors in homes, and up to 10 can meet in a pub or restaurant. Up to 15 people from up to 15 households can meet outdoors, so long as they are at least 1 metre away from other groups, and up to 200 people can attend weddings and funerals. The Scottish Government has communicated that it hopes to end most legal restrictions by Monday 9th August.

Covid-19 Statistics - UK

Daily Last 7 days Rate per 100k resident population
Positive Cases 39,906 325,223 (24.2%) 488.0
Deaths  84 387 (50.6%) 0.4

Summary of UK COVID-19 Business support schemes

The following rolling list of UK government business support measures announced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is updated weekly and is accurate as of Friday 23rd July 2021.

The UK Government has implemented a series of economic interventions aimed at supporting employees, employers and businesses through the uncertainty and potential loss of income resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have been revised and extended since being announced.

There is an official web portal with details on eligibility and how businesses can apply.

Employment retention measures

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Since March 2020, employers have been able to claim 80% of their usual monthly wage costs for furloughed employees, limited to £2,500 per individual per month, in addition to the associated Employer National Insurance and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions. Furloughed workers are able to work part-time, with employers sharing salary costs with the Government and covering National Insurance and pension contributions. To qualify for furlough payments, employees must have been on the payroll from 30th October 2020. The scheme will run until 30 September 2021 with employees receiving 80% of their pay for the entire period. Employers will be asked to contribute towards the cost of furloughed employees’ wages from July, paying 10% of the cost in the first month and then 20% across August and September. If a company is putting lots of employees on furlough, it must upload a template on the Government website when it makes a claim. Using these templates will help make sure the claim is processed quickly and successfully and the template may be rejected if businesses do not give the information in the right format.

Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme: The Government will refund eligible Statutory Sick Pay costs to all employers with fewer than 250 employees. This applies to any claim arising as a result of Covid-19, including precautionary self-isolation and those advised to shield due to clinical vulnerabilities. Employers are able to ask employees for a “shielding note” from a doctor or health authority advising them to shield. The scheme is limited to two weeks per employee.

Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS): Grants have been made available for those with trading profits of less than £50,000 that have experienced a loss of earnings due to Covid. To qualify at least half of a claimants income must come from self-employment. Three grants have already been paid out with applications currently closed. A fourth and fifth grant were confirmed at the March Budget. The fifth grant, available from late July, will apply predominantly to those most affected by the pandemic with 80% grants only available to those who have seen a turnover reduction of 30% or more..

Self-isolation Low Income Payment: To support individuals during self-isolation, a £500 Test and Trace Support Payment is available to those who will lose income or face financial hardship as a result of self-isolating. Those on, or living with a partner on, a range of Government benefits are also eligible for the payment. Applications for payment can be made through local councils. Payments are subject to income tax but not National Insurance contributions. Parents or guardians of a child who has been told to self-isolate may also qualify for the payment if they cannot work from home.

Business disruption financing measures 

Bounce Back Loan Scheme: Bounce Back Loans were introduced in April 2020 to give small businesses fast access to loans of between £2,000 and £50,000. Loans were made available through accredited lenders with the Government acting as guarantor and paying interest for the first 12 months on all loans. Firms are to begin repayments within 12 months. On 8th February, the Treasury announced that those with bounce-back loans are to be granted extra flexibility with repayments. Loans can now be extended with payment schedules altered to a company’s specific needs. Additionally, all payments can be delayed for a further 6 months meaning that for some, the first payment is now due 18 months after taking out the loan.

Trade Credit Insurance Guarantee: Businesses with supply chains that are reliant on Trade Credit Insurance may apply for support from the Government. The Government will temporarily guarantee business-to-business transactions currently supported by Trade Credit Insurance, ensuring that the majority of insurance coverage will be maintained across the market. The Trade Credit Insurance (TCI) guarantee will cover over £171 billion of business activity currently insured and the transactions between around 13,000 suppliers and 650,000 buyers. 

Recovery Loan Scheme: The Recovery Loan Scheme ensures businesses of any size can continue to access loans and other kinds of finance up to £10 million per business once the existing COVID-19 loan schemes close. The finance can be used for any legitimate business purpose, including growth and investment. The Government will guarantee 80% of the finance to the lender. The scheme launched on 6th April and is open until 31st December, subject to review. Loans will be available through a network of accredited lenders, whose names will be made public in due course.

Tax relief measures

Temporary VAT reduction for hospitality sector: The Government has introduced a temporarily reduced VAT rate of 5%, down from 20%, for certain supplies of hospitality, hotel and holiday accommodation, and admissions to certain attractions. The reduction will last until 30th September at which point an interim rate of 12.5% will be in place until April 2022. 

Targeted support measures

Apprentice and Trainee Bonus Scheme: Cash bonuses of up to £3,000 per apprentice will be available to employers that hire apprentices between April and September in 2021. This is in addition to the existing £1,000 that employers receive for taking on each new apprentice aged 16-18 or those aged under 25 with an Education, Health and Care Plan. Businesses can apply for incentive payments for these apprentices from 1 June 2021 to 30 November 2021.

Cash Grant for Retail, Hospitality and Leisure under Local restrictions: The Government will provide funding to local authorities to provide cash grants of up to £2,100 per month, for businesses in the hospitality, accommodation and leisure sector adversely affected by regional restrictions. These grants are available retrospectively from August, and will be administered by local authorities.

Business Rates Holiday for Retail/Hospitality/Leisure venues/Nurseries: A 100% business rates holiday will be in place until June 31st at which point a temporary rate, equivalent to one third of the normal charge will be in place until the end of 2021.

Non-financial measures

Business Support Checker Tool: The UK Government have released a “support find tool” in the form of a self-assessed questionnaire for businesses and self-employed people across the UK, to allow them to quickly determine what financial support is available to them.

Coronavirus Business Support Hub: Businesses can access a new online portal which aims to compile “key information for businesses including on funding and support, business closures, responsibilities as an employer and managing your business during coronavirus. The hub also includes information for self-employed people and sole traders.”

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