As we look to make our recovery following the devastation caused by Covid-19, free trade deals will play an important role in tackling the economic challenges we face. That’s why I am pleased that the Department for International Trade has now opened free trade negotiations with the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Along with the £160 billion the Government has provided to aid our recovery and prevent job losses, and the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs, free trade agreements will provide exciting opportunities for the many businesses and entrepreneurs who have been hit hard by Covid-19. The Government will ensure that these deals will be in the best interests of our businesses and the economy, and any deal must be fair and reciprocal.
In addition to this work, the Trade Bill continues to make its way through Parliament. The Bill contains key measures that will benefit both UK businesses and consumers. This includes the Government Procurement Agreement, which is an agreement between 20 parties to mutually open government procurement, thereby providing UK businesses with access to opportunities worth around £1.3 trillion per year. In addition, there are measures to protect UK producers from unfair trade practices, along with improvements to data sharing and collection to ensure that our export businesses, particularly small businesses and sole traders, are identified by the Government in order to assist with developing their export potential.
I was also pleased that, with Covid-19 cases continuing to fall, the Government was able to reopen further industries. This included outdoor theatres and venues, beauty salons and nail bars, tattoo parlours, spas, and massage studios. I have been contacted by a number of the above businesses in recent weeks regarding their reopening, which I duly raised with government ministers, so am glad that they have now been given the green light.
From the 25th July, we can also return to indoor gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres. I know this has been a very difficult time for these industries; however, I hope they can now move forward and start to rebuild.
As you will be aware, from the 24th July, wearing face coverings will become mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England, having already been in place in Scotland since earlier this month.
To be honest, I was surprised by the announcement. However, the Government has explained that there is growing scientific evidence showing that wearing a face mask in enclosed spaces can help stop the spread of the virus.
On one hand, I am relaxed at the (relatively) small additional effort to help tackle Covid-19, as it could save lives. However, I recognise the concerns that this could further damage confidence of those we need to get out and support our shops and economy. I know this decision will not have been taken lightly and will have been set by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Science Officer, who clearly have the relevant evidence to hand. I believe a significant factor was around the lifting of shielding for vulnerable people on August 4th. The introduction of face coverings in shops and supermarkets will encourage those more vulnerable people, who have been shielding for many weeks now, to start to return to normality.
I hope we all continue to take these small steps – thereby potentially saving lives whilst helping to support livelihoods.