Fiona Rhys-Jones of LL Estates in the Sunday Times

Corona-virus back to work in a divided kingdom, Read what Fiona has to say when interviewed by the Sunday Times

Fiona Rhys-Jones had mixed feelings as the property market reopened for business last Wednesday. The estate agent was eager to complete mortgage applications that have been on hold since the end of March, but she was soon stopped in her tracks. Estate agents, conveyancers and removal firms were given the go-ahead to return to work — but only in England.

For Rhys-Jones, 55, whose LL Estates is based in Rhuddlan, north Wales, her woe was compounded by the knowledge that surveyors she uses, along with her rivals, were being allowed to reopen in Chester, a 25-minute drive over the border.

“It’s confusing. Should we open our doors, or should we not? We have got our hands tied behind our back,” she said. “When we went into lockdown, it was as the United Kingdom. We were going to stick together. Now we are divided into four nations. It’s shocking.”

Taking the first steps out of lockdown has been bewildering for many businesses, receiving mixed messages from governments in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. While Boris Johnson has signalled his desire to ease restrictions and produced a roadmap to get the economy moving, the devolved administrations are more circumspect.

As the prime minister last Sunday unveiled his “stay alert” mantra and encouraged people who could not work from home to return to their workplaces, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales kept telling workers to “stay at home”.

The confusion has caused dismay among bosses — and could hamper efforts to keep the economy afloat in the wake of devastating economic figures released last week. “We need to see the whole of the UK moving together — the alternative for business is additional confusion and cost,” said Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce. “Avoiding divergence for the sake of politics is important. If it is necessary strictly for public health reasons, businesses will understand that, but if it arises due to politics, the economy will be harmed.”

Some 60% of business managers are concerned that the devolved administrations have different reopening rules from England, according to a poll for The Sunday Times conducted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

There are more than 2.6 million crossings every week between England and Wales in normal times. Some are made by Richard Walters’ staff. The co-founder of Pro Steel Engineering has kept his factory in Caldicot, Monmouthshire, open in the lockdown for his 45 engineers. Five sales staff remain at home.

Walters, 39, whose firm helped to convert London’s Olympic stadium into a football arena, said he was concerned that rivals on the other side of the Severn may be able to steal a march on him if the rules between England and Wales continue to diverge. “If there is a company that is able to get their people in an office and productive in England, it would be an unfair advantage against us,” he said.

Discontent is also emerging in Scotland. The housing market there remains on hold and housebuilders have been ordered not to work, even in a socially distanced way, as the SNP government prohibited construction it deemed non-essential. Homes for Scotland, the industry body, has been pleading for a date when builders can return safely, amid fears that firms will fold in the shutdown.

Meanwhile, retailers and restaurateurs have become frustrated on conference calls with authorities at Holyrood over the slow pace of phased reopenings, a source said. Scottish hoteliers and tourism operators, who have a shorter summer season than in England because of the climate, are concerned that there has been no guidance about when they can restart operations. English hotels are provisionally poised to reopen on July 4.

Sir Angus Grossart, 83, the veteran dealmaker at the heart of Scotland’s financial establishment, said: “Business awareness is not the strongest suit of the Scottish government. There has been little reference to the cost for businesses of not going back to work, or the eventual cost to the public purse. The coronavirus may be the priority, but we need to have greater evidence of a business restart plan and of the prime movers who will make it happen.”

The need for clarity across the UK was underlined last week by historically bad economic figures. The economy shrank by 5.8% in March, the steepest drop since the Office for National Statistics started compiling monthly data in 1997. The slump in output meant that GDP fell 2% in the first quarter — the biggest slide since the banking crisis.

The Bank of England warns that the UK is on course for the worst recession in more than 300 years, with GDP crashing by up to 30% in the first half of the year. Two million will lose their jobs if its forecast of 9% unemployment is borne out.

The crisis will batter public finances. The budget deficit is poised to balloon to almost £300bn this year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The total cost of state support schemes — such as furlough for workers and grants to stricken companies — could be as high as £123.2bn, an increase of £20bn in a month, the Treasury watchdog said.

Some 7.5 million people, a quarter of the workforce, have been furloughed, at a monthly cost to taxpayers of £14bn. Last week, chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the scheme to pay 80% of people’s wages from the end of next month until October, and said there would be more flexibility from August. Under the new proposals, it will be possible to furlough workers part-time, responding to a common plea from businesses. However, employers will have to start contributing to their furloughed workers’ wages after July. There has so far been no indication of the sum businesses will be asked to pay.

A further one million self-employed rushed to the government’s income support scheme within the first 48 hours of its opening last Wednesday. Despite the smooth operation of the online system, issues linger. For those who do qualify, there has been no sign that the scheme will be extended beyond its June cut-off. However, people who have been self-employed for less than a year, and limited company directors, complain that they are being denied financial help. “The government is storing up problems for when it increases taxes. That will [impact] people who have got absolutely nothing,” said Craig Beaumont, policy director at the Federation of Small Businesses.

Bosses fear that many workers who have been furloughed may never return. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed by the CMI said they expected a wave of redundancies to follow the end of the furlough period, while 62% feel less optimistic about the future of the economy now than they did a month ago.

Topping up the pay of his furloughed workers is costing James Timpson £500,000 a week. The boss of the Timpsons key-cutting chain said the government would need to “stoke demand and help companies push through”, for example by slashing VAT, because “if there is not a business at the end of this, a company can’t employ people”.

Those working in leisure, one of the worst-hit industries, are especially nervous. With pubs, hotels and cinemas closed in England until July at the earliest, the requirement to pay wages of furloughed staff could stymie any recovery before it has begun. “With social distancing, most hospitality businesses will be sub-economic when they open,” said Kate Nicholls of the UK Hospitality lobby group. “We need clarity and certainty that, for hospitality, [furlough] continues until the end of the year in some form.”

Other government plans have caused consternation among bosses, most notably the prime minister’s pledge to quarantine all international arrivals for 14 days. As with other policies, there has been no clarity on start and end dates.

For Rhys-Jones, the Welsh estate agent desperate to resume sales, the delay in restarting operations is frustrating, although she is trying to be optimistic. “We are three weeks behind now and that could make a big difference,” she said. “But we will be back on track. The economy will recover, but it will be hard.”