UK business community steps up pressure for quick rollout of second vaccine

Britain is the first country to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine

Pedestrians walk past a COVID-19 Tier 4 information sign in central London on December 23, 2020. Britain's public health service urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday to extend the country's Brexit transition period or risk pushing hospitals already struggling with coronavirus "over the edge" in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU single market. / AFP / Tolga Akmen
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British businesses are urging the government to distribute the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine quickly to help companies get back on their feet after the Covid-19 pandemic.

While companies welcomed news that a second vaccine will be distributed from next week, they hope the roll-out will be fast to ensure businesses, such as retailers shuttered by heightened restrictions, can recover.

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the vaccine offers “future hope” to businesses, but huge challenges remain while millions of people are under Tier 4 restrictions.

“Some light at the end of a long tunnel for businesses and communities across the UK. Let’s move quickly,” Mr Marshall tweeted.

“@hmtreasury needs to step up biz support further – for the whole of 2021”.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, said the government should “prioritise the roll-out of vaccines and vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible”.

“The NHS needs this and there is also a benefit to the economy in doing this. By the end of January millions of people will have been vaccinated using either of the vaccines," Mr Goodacre said.

"Given the impact of this new variant Covid-19 in the south-east, I can understand the argument for focusing on that area to hopefully alleviate impact on the NHS. If that policy also meant that areas could move down to Tier 3, that would also be a positive impact. However, medical needs over business needs should be the order of priority.”

Britain became the first to approve a Covid-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University on Wednesday - the second coronavirus injection approved for emergency use - with the vaccine set to be prioritised for the country’s most vulnerable groups from Monday, according to the government.

However, the approval comes as large swathes of the country remain under Tier 4 restrictions, as Britain battles a new, highly contagious variant of the virus, with office workers encouraged to work from home and non-essential shops forced to shut.

epa08904638 A masked man passes a closed Hamleys Toy Shop in an unusually quiet Regents Street in London, Britain, 26 December 2020. Boxing Day is traditionally a very busy time for retailers when they expect large footfall from shoppers due to discounts and sales. Harsher Covid restrictions now apply to millions more people, as rule changes come into force across the UK. Some 24 million people in England, more than 40 per cent of the population have gone into tier four, England's highest Covid level - which includes a 'stay at home' order. The toughest measures mean the closure of all non-essential shops, and businesses such as hairdressers, swimming pools and gyms.  EPA/NEIL HALL
A masked man passes a closed Hamleys Toy Shop on London's Regents Street. Boxing Day is traditionally a very busy time for retailers when they expect large footfall from shoppers due to discounts and sales. London is under Tier 4 restrictions, which means all non-essential shops, and businesses such as hairdressers, swimming pools and gyms must close. EPA

The retail closures around the traditionally lucrative Christmas period came soon after stores were able to open following the second nationwide lockdown in November.

The Tier 4 restrictions were another blow for the UK economy, which is expected to contract 10 per cent this year, following a 19.8 per cent decline in output in the second quarter. Despite a raft of policy measures to protect jobs and businesses, unemployment hit 4.9 per cent in the three months to October and the number or redundancies hit a record high.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry, said the vaccine brings the UK “one step closer” to a more normal way of life, but warned “this is not the end of the battle”.

“Rising infection rates and new strains mean tough precautions remain necessary in the short term. Businesses understand this and continue to do their utmost to protect their staff and customers,” said Mr Fell.

“In turn, Government must continue to do all it can to protect businesses. It must ensure ongoing restrictions are grounded in evidence, continue to roll out an improved testing regime which will enable more parts of the economy to reopen safely, and ensure financial support for the hardest-hit sectors remains in place until the pandemic is past.”

UK stocks responded positively to the vaccine news, with the FTSE 100 up 0.15 per cent to 6,612 at 10.51am London time and AstraZeneca's share price up 0.86 per cent to 7,526, after jumping 3.3 per cent earlier in anticipation of the news.

Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at AvaTrade, said the vaccine approval was "certainly good news".

"Another major company getting its vaccine approved by the lawmakers will further improve the coronavirus situation as the number of Covid cases are ticking higher over in Europe and in the US," he said.

AJ Bell investment director Russ Mould said the pharmaceuticals and biotech sector is down nearly 10 per cent for the year, which "seems like rank ingratitude given the importance of the vaccines upon which they are working".

"Yet through their very success, the drug firms are helping to promote the share prices of others – companies which will benefit much more dramatically from any success in the effort to contain and beat back the virus and permit any degree of return to economic normality," Mr Mould said.

Britain will start rolling out the vaccine from January 4 with the jab able to be stored, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions. This makes it cheaper and easier to administer than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that require freezing.

Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at Axi, said the vaccine could bring forward a potential end to further restrictions "given the easier logistical and storage requirements".

However, with cases soaring and Tier 4 movement restrictions set to be widened across the country, Mr Innes expects traders to remain cautious.