Friday, 23 April 2021

Sigh of relief and now we can all make plans

Sigh of relief and now we can all make plans

PLANS to ease the coronavirus restrictions have brought huge relief to people in Henley.

Boris Johnson set out a roadmap of the different stages on Monday and all the measures to tackle the pandemic could be lifted as early as June 21.

The first of four phases will be on March 8, when all schools and colleges return. Two people from different households will be able to meet outside for recreation and a nominated person can visit care home residents.

On March 29, people will be allowed to meet outside with one other household, or within the rule of six. The “stay at home” rule will end and outdoor sport facilities can re-open, along with organised outdoor sports.

Stage two, which will be no earlier than April 12, will be when all shops can
re-open as well as gyms, spas, hairdressers and other close contact services. Restaurants and pubs can serve customers in outdoor settings only, including alcohol. Libraries and community centres can re-open and domestic holidays will be permitted.

The third stage, which will be no earlier than May 17, will allow people to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors, with six people or two households allowed indoors. Pubs and restaurants will also be able to operate indoor seating. Indoor entertainment venues, such as museums, theatres, cinemas and children’s play areas can re-open.

Performances and large-scale events will be subject to limits but hotels and B&Bs can begin to welcome guests at this stage, along with international leisure travel.

The final hurdle, planned for June 21, is for all restrictions on social contact to be removed and for limits on weddings and funerals to be removed. Nightclubs will also be allowed to re-open.

The ability to move from one phase to the next will depend on how well the vaccination programme is going, hospital admission rates and the detection of any new variants posing a risk.

Henley MP John Howell said the Prime Minister’s announcement brought “a huge amount of certainty” after many months of despair.

He said: “What it shows is the careful measures we must take towards the end of these restrictions rather than rushing ahead in haste.

“It will be of enormous benefit to businesses in that they have a date where they can re-open safely.

“I’m looking forward to people being free again but they have to be free in a safe way and there are a number of stages that the Prime Minister has set out.”

Mr Howell said he regretted that there would be “inevitable casualties” as a result of the pandemic but he believed there would be a resurgence in the local economy this summer.

He added: “A sign of optimism is to look at the unemployment figures and they are actually lower than they were in December.

“We are running at about half the national average here in the Henley constituency, so while it is very sad to note that some people have been made unemployed, it is a good sign for the immediate future.

“I think there will be an enormous appetite from the businesses themselves to get ready, but also for people to get out and use them again.

“The thing we have to concentrate on is the middle of June, when we expect all social distancing rules to be revoked.

“It is a compliment of how well the vaccine programme has gone and how many people it has helped. We have been the envy of every country except for Israel, with whom we’ve co-operated on information about the vaccine.

“We do have a roadmap now and it is quite a detailed plan. My advice would be, for heaven’s sake, just stick to it.

“Don’t throw away all the gains we’ve made by wanting to rush ahead faster than the Prime Minister has set out.”

The announcement came as a disappointment to Tom Davies, chief executive of Henley pub company Brakspear, who felt pubs should have been allowed to resume indoor service sooner than May 17.

The company, which operates many pubs in Henley and the surrounding area, will lose money for the first time in its 250-year history this year.

Mr Davies said: “It is a bit of a mixed bag but I was frustrated. Pushing the opening back to mid-May is a bit of a kick in the teeth. I always felt the beginning of May would be fair and reasonable.

“Being able to open outdoor areas is a bit of a distraction because a lot of pubs don’t have gardens and it is very difficult with the weather.

“Every single report that comes back proves that hospitality is not the super-spreader that people think it is. There are studies we have done as an industry, but also that the Government has done, but they chose to ignore these.

“The idea that non-essential retail can open so much earlier is ridiculous.

“On the positive side, the ending of social distancing in June is welcomed. We thought this was something that might drag on for the rest of the year.

“Pubs are a much safer environment than most non-essential retail outlets, so I don’t think it is particularly fair, but it is what it is and we’ve got to make the most of it.

“We will make a loss this year and it will be millions of pounds, sadly. We’ve had to borrow money from the banks but we have to pay that back.

“All our pubs are chomping at the bit to get going again. It has been unbelievably tough but the only way we are going to get through it is by working together.”

Henley Mayor Ken Arlett said he believed there was now a greater chance of Henley Royal Regatta going ahead on the revised dates of August 10 to 15, either in Henley or Dorney Lake in Buckinghamshire.

The regatta said it was too early to announce a final decision.

Councillor Arlett said: “You would hope we can have a regatta and that could be one of the biggest pluses to come out of the announcement as long as we can stick to the dates.

“It is so much better now that we have dates, whereas before you were guessing what might happen and then people got upset when it didn’t.

“If the shops can stay alive, then I’m pretty sure a lot of people will go out and use them.

“I was speaking to a lady the other day and she said that as soon as restaurants re-open, she will go to a different one every day for the first week.

“People just want to get out with their friends and family, so I think the pubs, cafes and restaurants will do really well if they can hang on. I’m pretty sure people will come and spend money on retail as well. It is up to all of us again to follow the guidelines and hopefully we can meet those dates that have been given to us. I hope we can get back to somewhere near normal and lots of people should have had the vaccination by then.”

Helen Barnett, Henley’s town and community manager, said: “It is fantastic to have some dates to work towards for all of the businesses in Henley.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to come out of lockdown, so it will be a busy time leading up to all those dates on the roadmap.

“There is a huge appetite for people to go out and enjoy shopping and meet with friends. Henley is a fantastic place to do all of those things, with our independent retailers and a hospitality industry that has worked really hard.

“We really need to impress upon people that they should support local — you don’t need to go far away from home to enjoy all of those things.

“I know a lot of people have done that already by supporting those who have stayed open for takeaways.

“The pandemic has highlighted how amazing and how lucky we are. We have everything on our doorstep and those local producers that have stepped up to the plate in the last 12 months. I can’t fault the support that the residents have given the town.”

Niki Schäfer, who chairs the Henley Business Partnership, said: “I think people are utterly jubilant and everyone in the wedding business is thrilled. They’ve given businesses a few months to get organised.

“The restaurants and pubs have already spent a fortune on all their equipment, but I’ve seen some really positive responses from the local businesses, which is just amazing.

“I’m delighted for them but we just need to be mindful that the virus hasn’t gone away and we need to be careful.

“This third lockdown has been the most difficult but everybody has respected the rules. When the sun is shining and you are able to walk along the river that is one thing but when it is cold and miserable it is really tough for some people.”

The return of museums and theatres in May was welcomed by Julie Huntington, who chairs the trustees of the Kenton Theatre in New Street.

She said: “We are thrilled and I must admit there was quite a bit of punching the air among the trustees, especially Simon Spearing, our new manager. What we are here for is not happening, so we are just biding are time.

“We were under no illusions that it was going to be any earlier and people have to get together to rehearse, so it isn’t like we will kick off with a show on May 17. You still can’t predict anything because the steps could overrun if there are problems.

“We have some very exciting things planned and not least our pantomime — tickets for that will be on sale very soon. It is down to us to reassure the public that it is safe to come in. We won’t be open at full capacity straight away and it will have to be covid-secure. We’re not going to try to run before we can walk.”

Sally Hughes, artistic and managing director at the Mill at Sonning, said the theatre would be working to rearrange dates and that there were “fantastic” productions to come.

She said: “Our wonderful Mill audience has been so supportive over the last year and now it seems that we are almost there.

“I am sure that many of you have been affected by this virus, either your health, your job, or your business.

“I look forward to the day that the Mill can once again help people with tickets for school charities and Rotary clubs.

“However, for this moment in time, I have to make sure that The Mill makes it through the next few months until we can re-open profitably.”

Dr Sarah Posey, director of Henley’s River & Rowing Museum, said: “It is early days but we really welcome the Government’s announcement with the roadmap. It is really helpful to have those milestones and know that progress will be reviewed as we go along.

“At the moment, we are carefully considering our options for re-opening as soon as possible. What we can say is when the museum does re-open, it will be with the same covid measures in place as before, including limiting numbers to manage social distancing.

“We are really looking forward to welcoming back all of our visitors. We were really thrilled that people felt safe returning to us last time we were able to be open.

“We’ve got lots of lovely plans for when we re-open, with new displays and new stories to tell.

“All of these closures have an impact on us financially, but we have made plans moving forward so that we can be sustainable.

“We’ve put in a bid to Arts Council England cultural recovery fund and we will know the outcome at the end of March.”

• What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley or email letters@henleystandard.co.uk

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