Pubs, cafés, museums and bars have been left in fear about how they will pay their bills after Boris Johnson did not instruct establishments to close their doors despite recommending “social distancing” measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.
People who run small businesses have told BuzzFeed News they think insurers may not pay out under these circumstances – but would have done if ordered to close by the government.
“We’re all just completely shocked” said Tanya Tong, who owns Cin Cin Bar in Deal in Kent. “From what we can gather from the clauses in our insurance, if there’s not an order to close, none of us get any payout.”
On Monday the prime minister said people should avoid "nonessential contact" with other people and avoid pubs, clubs, cinemas, and theatres to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a major shift in the UK's response.
However no explicit detail was given about insurance or about how venues would continue paying staff and suppliers.
"The social distancing measures we have set out today will have considerable impacts on businesses and society," a government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
“We made clear in last week’s Budget that we stand ready to support businesses, including small and medium sized enterprises, to help them deal with the effects of the virus. We will continue to engage with business and are working rapidly to provide more support.”
French President Emmanuel Macron announced a huge package of measures to support businesses on Monday and said no business "of any size" would be allowed to go bankrupt.
But Johnson's press conference did not have a message as clear as this for British businesses.
“The speech left us with loads of worrying questions” says Reece Davies, who owns Katey’s Coffee Shop in Chesterfield in Derbyshire with his fiancee.
“He has asked people to actively not come to our cafe but at the same time, not forced us to close, meaning no compensation or insurance. We have staff we have to pay but with no income, how are we going to pay that?”
Two organisations responsible for dozens of British theatres announced on Monday that all their venues will close until further notice, plunging the sector into uncertainty.
“There are over 290,000 individuals working in the theatre industry across the UK, and closures of theatres and public venues will have a devastating impact,” said SOLT and UK Theatre in a statement.
BECTU, a trade union representing people who work in the entertainment industry, has raised the issue of insurance in the industry.
“The government needs to be clearer in its guidance and its language so that theatre companies can claim insurance to ensure that staff are not left without pay for weeks on end” said Philippa Childs, the union’s head, in a statement.
If Johnson had ordered pubs to close their doors, venues may be protected by a “business interruption” clause in their insurance, Mark Lindesay, landlord of the Golden Cross Inn in Cirencester, Gloucestershire said.
“Unless we’re actually instructed to close, my belief is we won’t be covered for loss of trade” he said. “I’m extremely worried,” he added.
Lindesay and others told BuzzFeed News that the timing of the announcement was particularly tricky for the hospitality sector.
January and February are slow months in the hospitality sector, but trade tends to rise sharply when spring arrives, peaking in the summer months.
“We've literally just come out the other side of a very wet winter and were looking forward to lighter evenings and a full garden” said Alison Watson-Burge, who runs The Samuel Barlow in Warwickshire.
“While we could simply stay open unless and until we're ordered to close I think it's likely that we'll be criticised for being socially irresponsible, and given the nature of our business that's not something I wish to deal with.”