Leon boss warns longer lockdown 'will cost lives'

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Extending lockdowns even by a matter of weeks will "cost lives", the co-founder of fast-food chain Leon has said.

John Vincent said businesses were "at the heart of a functioning and healthy society" and were losing money that should be going to their employees and the government through taxes.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said people should be "optimistic but patient" about national lockdowns.

He will set out a road map for lifting England's restrictions on Monday.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Vincent said it was "quite possible" that Leon could fold "if weeks and months drag on", as it was losing around £200,000 a week. That figure was more like £800,000 when "what we would have been making" is taken into account, he said.

"That's money that isn't going into the economy, it's not going into the wallets of the people who work for Leon, and it's not going to pay the taxes that we need to pay," he said.

"No one's asked us for these numbers, so how does the government know what's going on in the economy?"

He said there had been a "pantomime of scientists against business" during the pandemic - "as if there isn't one giant shared agenda" - and the latter were "positioned as the uncompassionate ones".

Image source, LEON
Image caption,
John Vincent has been chief executive of the business since 2014

But the length of lockdowns "matters hugely", he said, adding that the government had not produced a "holistic cost-benefit analysis".

"Therefore, how can we be making this decision about the impacts on the young today and for their futures? How can we make (decisions about) the impacts of the huge economic destruction which is costing lives? When we lose our economy we lose lives," he said.

"How can we be saying, glibly, 'it doesn't matter if lockdown carries on for a few weeks or months longer than necessary' without the analysis? I wouldn't launch a chicken wrap without analysis."

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the prime minister would lay out a plan for "gradually reopening our economy and society in a sustainable way" on Monday.

"We understand that this is an extremely tough time for UK restaurants, but we are supporting business with one of the most comprehensive and generous packages of business support in the world worth over £280 billion," he said.

"As we navigate our way out of lockdown, we will continue to work closely with the hospitality sector, as we have done throughout this pandemic."

'Not the time to relax'

Mr Johnson said during a coronavirus briefing this week that steps taken to ease lockdown should be "cautious but irreversible".

He hailed the success of the vaccine rollout, but warned the threat from the virus remained "very real" and now was not the time to "relax".

More than 16 million people have been given a first dose of the vaccine, according to government figures released on Friday.

A further 533 people died within 28 days of a positive test, and another 12,027 cases of the virus were confirmed.

Mr Johnson's comments came after 63 Tory MPs called for easing to begin in March and for analysis to be released justifying any measures staying in place.

Earlier, it was announced that care home residents in England would be allowed to pick one person to visit them regularly from 8 March - the first confirmed easing of lockdown since its reintroduction last month.

Suppliers of pubs, restaurants and cafés have asked for at least two weeks' notice of any re-opening to ensure their supply chains are ready.

Wholesalers say they will need time to stock up on fresh produce.

Kate Bruns, who runs a pub in Hartlepool, told the BBC the past year had been extremely difficult.

"I'd like to get open and I would like a little bit more guidance on how or what is expected from our side, really," she said.

"The thing about drinking outside - as much as I would love that to happen - that it is slightly harder to control. When we had it inside it was very controlled and everyone felt safe.

"Customers felt safe - safer than if they were going to a supermarket. But outside is slightly different and harder to man."

Prof Dame Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee earlier this week that each step of easing measures should be "irrevocable", adding "that means we have to be extremely careful before we add another unlocking".

"We want to understand the impact on each step before taking the next steps," she said, adding that this would require a "large gap" after children go back to school.

Prof Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling prompted the first English lockdown, told the BBC on Friday that two key bits of data - the infection rate and the effectiveness of vaccines - were "looking promising", but it would take "quite a long time" to assess the situation fully.

He said the UK could be "a very different country" by the end of May.

"We will still have rules in place but… I think society will be a lot more normal," he said.