York Press column – Reopening our city
July 2, 2020
With the reopening of cafes, eateries, pubs, libraries, cultural venues, and tourist facilities this coming Saturday, following the opening of non-essential shops on 15th June, York will start returning to something like its normal bustle.
I know many will have been relieved by being able to more effectively support loved ones in single households, including staying overnight, under the ‘bubble’ arrangements from 13th June, while from 4th July we can also look forward to having friends round and taking holidays in the UK.
While we must remain prepared to row back on this if there are signs of a covid upsurge, this big step on 4th July is a vital part of our ongoing collective battle with coronavirus, as we adjust distancing to allow for normal life to resume as far as is possible, alongside careful shielding of the vulnerable.
As the initial wave recedes, we now need think about how we can live with the threat of the virus, not just exist in fear of it. Until the discovery of a vaccine, coronavirus will remain a risk that has to be managed, and we cannot simply put our society into suspended animation for as long as this takes.
I appreciate some may think the pace too rapid, but provided than reopening can be done safely, we frankly cannot afford to wait until the reality of hollowed-out high streets, folding businesses and surging unemployment jolts us into action, because by then it will be too late, and York would already have suffered serious economic and social scarring, that would undermine our ability to pay for the ongoing coronavirus response, and could take years to heal.
Readers should be under no illusions as to the scale of the economic hit. The economy shrank 20.4% in April, and although government furlough and self-employment income support schemes have thankfully paid the wages of over 30,000 York residents, to ensure these people have jobs to go back to we must get the local economy moving again.
Saturday’s reopening simply would not be possible without the government’s decision to relax the 2-metre distancing requirement to ‘1-metre plus’, and I am very glad Ministers listened to calls from myself and others for careful and common-sense adjustment of this to reflect the position of most other countries.
Without this change, it would not be viable for most hospitality businesses to reopen. With 2-metres, they can only make 30% of normal income, while a reduction to 1-metre allows for 60-75% of income to be generated. The shift from 2-metres is also crucial for the full reopening of schools from September, without which many school leaders suggested learning could only be part-time, a loss which would of course most affect children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On Monday, the House of Commons passed the government’s Business and Planning Bill, which will assist York’s recovery by allowing businesses to utilise space outside their premises for serving food and drink, without having to seek planning permission. I took a lead on this locally by lobbying City of York Council to review regulations to let businesses use outdoor space, well in advance of the government’s plans.
I was pleased to see how well the York Designer Outlet is adapting to this ‘new normal’ when I was shown round their extensive safety precautions on 13th June, and I have written to hospitality businesses across my constituency to ask what measures they need so they can open securely.
I know many residents are concerned that leisure centres, pools and gyms still have a projected reopening date of mid-July. I agree the government should consider bringing this forward for those sites that can open safely, and am happy to push Ministers on behalf of affected local venues.
In recent weeks, I have also been pleased to successfully support York City FC fans by urging the National League and Culture Secretary to secure the club’s well-deserved promotion, threatened by lockdown. I also pressed the new buyer of Dunnington-based Minster FM radio on their obligation to maintain a genuine local voice on the airwaves.
These much-loved local institutions are important parts of the fabric of our city, which I hope will soon be thriving again.