Why British business must speak up on lockdowns

Restrictions are crushing business, but its leaders are nervous of saying anything. Time to toughen up, says Matthew Lynn.

Last weekend, the boss of the Leon fast-food chain, John Vincent, made some mildly critical remarks about the dangers of extending lockdown any further. Immediately he faced furious accusations that he was endangering lives, putting profits before public health, and only trying to further his own narrow commercial interests. The same fate has befallen any other business leader brave enough to question whether we can keep the economy closed down forever. Surely this is crazy.  

Nothing Vincent said was especially controversial. He argued it was “quite possible” Leon could fold “if weeks and months drag on”, as it was losing around £200,000 a week, adding that no one in charge of policy seemed to mind what happened to companies such as his. You can agree or disagree with his assessment, but from the abuse he received on Twitter, it seems as if many people think entrepreneurs are not entitled to any opinion at all. 

The same treatment is dished out to any business leader rash enough to put their head above the parapet. Tim Martin, the always outspoken founder of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, took his own share of flak for arguing that pubs should be allowed to re-open at least at the same time as non-essential retailers. Again, he was told that he was putting profits before lives. Hospitality entrepreneur Luke Johnson has also been consistently sceptical on lockdowns.

Three reasons why business leaders should speak up

As a cautious roadmap out of lockdown is unveiled, and with four more months until all the restrictions on businesses are finally lifted in June, surely we need more business leaders to take a stand against keeping restrictions in place longer than we absolutely have to. So far, most have kept their heads down. They are nervous of the reaction, and aware that many people support lockdowns until the virus has been completely eradicated. That needs to change for three reasons.  

First, the people running companies are at the sharp end of this crisis. Anyone trying to keep a business ticking over knows the terrible cost that lockdown is imposing. Sure, there is the furlough scheme, and that will now be extended into the summer, and there are soft loans, and rebates on rents and business rates. And yet the cost of maintaining a firm when it’s closed is still horrendous. Furloughs don’t cover the cost of pension and national insurance contributions for the staff kept on. Soft loans might be on easy terms, but they still need to be repaid one day. Premises have to be maintained even if the rates have been deferred and that costs money. After more than a year of opening up and closing down again, many businesses, and the smaller ones with little access to extra capital in particular, are not going to survive. We need business to keep pointing this out. If we only hear one side of the argument, we will keep on making the wrong decisions.

Second, business leaders know better than anyone how to make their premises safe. As Tim Martin argues, it is not necessarily obvious that a pub is more dangerous than a clothes shop in the middle of a packed mall. In truth, it probably depends on a number of factors. The people running a company are best placed to say whether their operations are safe or not, and we shouldn’t automatically assume they are simply putting profits first. 

Finally, business leaders are willing to takes chances when they need to. Running a successful business involves constantly balancing risks and rewards. A chief executive has to navigate his or her way through dozens of different possible outcomes, none of which are certain. The best ones are very good at it, and get it right more often than not – if they didn’t they wouldn’t be in business for very long. 

We can’t leave the debate about how to get out of lockdown to epidemiologists or civil servants. The specialists will be far too cautious, and ignore all the other costs of locking down. We need more business leaders to speak up – and they shouldn’t be hounded for doing so. 

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