In depth: Harrogate traders warn of sting in tail for business prospects as Boris ends Covid rules

Covid may have been declared effectively over by the Government this week but the cost of living crisis is threatening to cast a shadow over Harrogate’s economic bounceback, the town’s business leaders have told the Harrogate Advertiser.

By Graham Chalmers
Friday, 25th February 2022, 3:02 pm
Updated Friday, 25th February 2022, 3:08 pm
End of Covid era: As well as the increased costs fscing Harrogate businesses, there is also the fact that residents are facing a tightening of the purse strings, too.
End of Covid era: As well as the increased costs fscing Harrogate businesses, there is also the fact that residents are facing a tightening of the purse strings, too.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end all Covid restrictions and consign free mass testing in England to history along with face masks has been hailed by his own side as a “historic moment”.

But, while the PM may be privately relieved to have pushed the political agenda in a more positive direction by ending the Covid era - and away from his troubles with the ‘partygate’ scandal - the business community is warning its battle for prosperity is only just beginning.

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Having received support during the pandemic from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, traders are starting to ask for Government intervention over the cost of

doing business.

The initial reaction of Harrogate traders was to breathe a sigh of relief that the two long years of ever-changing pandemic rules and restrictions were finally over. But there now seems to be a sting in the tail.

Martin Gerrard, Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce President, said: “The end of Covid restrictions is very good news for businesses, and I hope this will now allow the economy to get back on track.

“Despite a growth in hybrid working, an increasing number of employees are now returning to offices, and this should be encouraged. This in turn benefits other businesses reliant on this regular weekday trade.

“The last two years have been incredibly difficult for all, and for many the Government’s announcement is long overdue. Now the focus needs to be on addressing rising costs and

staff shortages.”

The surge of positive vibes over news that all remaining Covid rules - including the legal duty to self-isolate - will end this week with free tests to stop for most in April, is being balanced by concerns over a set of new challenges.

The chair of Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID), Sara Ferguson, said it was great news that traders could now plan ahead without the fear of the rules changing.

But, she added, the unprecedented rise in costs facing businesses, including soaring energy prices, a rise in VAT for the hospitality sector and rising inflation, now threatened to make doing business an uphill struggle again.

“It has been an incredibly long and difficult two years but this is welcome news and I hope it means lockdowns and social distancing will become a dim and distant memory,” said

Mrs Ferguson.

“The fear of restrictions has prevented many businesses from planning ahead, and I hope this now gives them the confidence to push ahead with any pre-pandemic plans they may have had.

“While Covid is now behind us, town centre business, in particular those in hospitality face new challenges in the form of rises in National Insurance and the Minimum Wage, VAT returning to 20%, and an increase in the cost of fuel and raw materials.”

The Prime Minister detailed the new strategy for England to the Commons late on Monday afternoon after a Cabinet disagreement thought to centre on funding for future surveillance of the virus.

Those who receive a positive Covid-19 test will still be advised to stay at home for at least five days, but will not be obliged to under law under the plans subject to parliamentary approval.

The £500 self-isolation support payment for people on low incomes who test positive for Covid will also no longer be available.

People aged 75 and over, the immuno-suppressed and those living in care homes will be offered another Covid-19 booster vaccine this spring. But free universal testing will be massively scaled back from April 1.

Speaking for Harrogate BID, Mrs Ferguson said - despite the reduction in Covid regulations - businesses would still be seeking to protect customers and staff alike.

While respectful of the health situation, Harrogate’s business leaders are looking to the future and how to ensure the town’s economic recovery continues in 2022.

As well as the increased ‘business costs’ there is also the fact that residents are facing a tightening of the purse strings as they face a hike in fuel costs, food prices and petrol.

This all means that the average shopper will likely have less disposable income to spend at the stores desperate for business to lift them out of the Covid doldrums.

Harrogate BID is already looking at ways it can support the town centre and the business owners that pay its levy.

As well as a series of measures to stimulate footfall in the town centre and fill empty retail units, one option which also seems likely to happen is a grant scheme for businesses from BID.

But it seems the road ahead, while seemingly now clear of any Covid obstacles, remains anything but smooth.

The cost of living crisis may just provide that feared sting in the tail.

'At last we can get on with life' - How one Harrogate shop owner greeted end of Covid rules

Traders in one of Harrogate’s key independent shopping streets are delighted to see the Covid restrictions lifted.

Sue Kramer, owner of Crown Jewellers and head of the Commercial Street Retailers Group, said: “Generally we would say that the businesses on Commercial Street are breathing a huge sigh of relief that restrictions are coming to an end.

“Retailers and hospitality businesses have been through so much, and strived to follow the rules, and protect their customers. At last we can get on with ‘business as usual’. I cannot wait!”

How Boris Johnson 'ended' the Covid era

Face masks may have stopped being legally mandatory in most settings last month after Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared ‘Plan B’ had succeeded but mass testing and the requirement to self-isolate have continued to impact on individuals, businesses and schools.

This week’s new announcements mean that schools no longer need undertake twice-weekly asymptomatic testing.

In addition, from today, Thursday, people who test positive for Covid will no longer be required to self-isolate.

From April 1, free mass testing for the general public will end, and will instead be targeted towards the most vulnerable.

But doctors, opposition parties and charities representing vulnerable people have criticised the changes as premature and risky.

Caution as vaccination centres in Harrogate district begin to close

Health officials have revealed plans to close Harrogate’s vaccination centres as the district’s pandemic response is scaled back in the move towards living with Covid.

The vaccine site at the Great Yorkshire Showground will continue delivering jabs until “at least the middle of March,” the NHS North Yorkshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said. The CCG added that officials were “looking at future provision beyond this date, with arrangements to be confirmed”.

Knaresborough’s vaccination centre at the Chain Lane Community Hub will also close next month, while the vaccine site at Ripon Racecourse will deliver its final jabs this weekend.

The CCG said the sites have played a key role in achieving “phenomenal” vaccine coverage across Harrogate, with 70% of the district’s population now having received a booster vaccination jab.

In other positive figures, death, hospitalisation and infection rates are all falling nationally as the Government this week took the final step in its “living with Covid” strategy.

The moves have not been uniformly supported and have taken some health officials by surprise - as infection levels are still high and it’s unclear what the changes will do to the spread of the virus.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of The NHS Confederation - which represents all the organisations making up the NHS said: “Hospital admissions and deaths linked to coronavirus continue to fall nationally and this is allowing the NHS to bring back many routine services that it was asked to de-prioritise during the peaks of the pandemic, including some non-urgent procedures.

"But the Government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend the threat has disappeared entirely.”