The need for increasing numbers of staff to self-isolate is “a serious threat” to small businesses, according to the owner of an independent chain of coffee shops.
Craig Bunting is the co-founder of BEAR, a chain of five coffee shops across Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire – two of which were closed on Monday after staff members were told to isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app.
He described the coronavirus pandemic as “the most challenging thing since starting our business” and said the need to close stores once again has left them in a “dangerous situation”.
“With staff shortages, with people in isolation, we’re battling to be able to trade,” Mr Bunting, 36, told the PA news agency.
“We have to really, really look at our numbers and work out how we’re going to survive this.
“We’ve worked so hard to get through it using the things that are available to us, pivoting our business where we could… everyone’s pulled together and worked really hard and it feels like we were starting to come out it.
“Today’s Freedom Day, and it just doesn’t feel very free, that’s for sure.”
With case numbers rising sharply in England as restrictions are lifted, the country has seen what has been described as a “pingdemic”, with hundreds of thousands of people told to stay at home after being deemed to have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid.
It means many small businesses are having to close completely, while even larger companies are affected – pub chain Greene King has shut 33 pubs in the last week, and PureGym said up to 25% of staff are isolating in some areas.
Mr Bunting said the app is “causing a huge concern” for BEAR and has been “pinging everyone”, with roughly 20 of the company’s 100-strong workforce currently isolating.
Among them is one store manager who received a ping from the app just three days after returning to work from a previous period of isolation, as well as Mr Bunting himself.
“I’m isolating so it feels very helpless,” he said.
“We could go and step in and support my team, I can make coffee, I can pour great flat whites and I would do that, but I can’t because I’ve been pinged by a stupid app.”
Mr Bunting called for the implementation of a “test and release” system, allowing those who test negative to avoid isolation.
“If I can test and I’m negative, let me carry on running my business, let me carry on taking the kids to school, let me live a normal life and test every day,” he said.
“I’m more than happy to test every day.”
In March, the Government announced help including an extension of the business rates holiday and the offer of restart grants.
But Mr Bunting said more is needed as the hospitality sector is “on its knees”.
“They need to stop business rates for the rest of the year, they need to work with banks to make sure any loans, any debt is managed properly,” he said.
“And if they’re forcing people to close their stores because they don’t have the staff, they didn’t go far enough in March, they need to go further – grants, something to help the industry because it’s on its knees.
“I’m feeling it first-hand, and it’s heart-breaking.”