Businesses struggling to stay afloat have been given hope by the news that UK citizens could be among the first in the world to start receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
The most vulnerable groups could start to get the jab from early next week, government ministers said, after medical regulators cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
With 98 per cent of England under high or very high alert under the coronavirus tier system – and with tough restrictions in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – many firms are looking for any sign of relief on the horizon.
“It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched on again,” says Anna Wadcock, who runs the Maldron Hotel in Newcastle, which is currently in tier 3.
“It’s really positive news that’s given us a great boost and belief that things can start moving. Hopefully by the end of March next year we will start seeing weekend trips returning.”
In recent months, visits from tourists and business travellers have dried up, with many rooms left empty.
“We certainly feel Newcastle will bounce back quite quickly. It’s very popular as a destination for groups and couples.”
Might business get back to 2019 levels next year? “Oh, God no,” says Wadcock. Like most in the industry, she is preparing for a slow return to normal.
“The vaccine is one step on the road to recovery but the quicker it can be rolled out the better for all of us.”
That road will probably be a difficult one. The UK is in one of the biggest economic holes of any country, with output expected to crash by 11.3 per cent this year.
On Wednesday, the chancellor said the announcement about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could mark “the start of a march back”, telling Times Radio that the vaccine would give people a “glimmer of hope”.
“Confidence is critical, especially in an economy like ours, which – more than most other economies – is driven by consumption, the things that we go and buy and do when we’re out and about, and consumer confidence is key to that,” he said.
“And that’s something that, for understandable reasons, has been in not as strong supply as we would like over the past several months, and hopefully, this is the start of a march back.”
He encouraged people to return to shops and spend again, a message that some consumers had already taken on board by 7am on Wednesday when queues began to form outside high street stores reopening their doors after a four-week lockdown.
For other businesses, trade will be slower to return but optimism is beginning to grow.
“It’s very exciting – it’s obviously an important day from a social perspective,” says Robert Alley, managing director of Roomzzz, which operates serviced apartments in a number of cities.
“We have seven of 10 properties still in tier 3, so for us it remains a frustrating time having to limit the guests that we can accept.
“Anything that’s part of the route out of here is good news for us in the long run. The testing is part of it, the vaccine is part of it, as is people’s ability to work with the restrictions for a while longer, it’s just tough at the moment.”
While the vaccine is welcomed, the future remains uncertain with many questions for businesses not yet answered.
Will the pandemic result in long-term changes to how we live or will we return to our old ways? Will hours of conference calls continue for office workers or will they ditch Zoom as soon as they can go to meet people again?
“It’s crystal ball time,” says Alley. “I don’t think anyone’s got any better idea than we have. The big question is: when will we get to a point where the most vulnerable are vaccinated and it’s safe enough to get back to something like normality?”
Despite renewed cause for optimism, stock markets were relatively subdued, with the FTSE 100 index of large companies’ shares closing up 1.2 per cent.
“There’s a distinct lack of fizz from the Pfizer vaccine UK approval on the London market,” says Susannah Streeter, a senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.
That’s largely because markets had already factored in a vaccine rollout over the coming weeks and months, helping the FTSE 100 gain more than 12 per cent in November – its best monthly rise in 11 years.
The breather comes after America’s main stock index, the S&P 500, closed at a record high amid hopes a massive stimulus deal will be agreed for the US economy.
“Eyes and ears are also turning to the Brexit talks, which still hang in the balance,” says Streeter.
“Nervousness about the outcome of negotiations pushed sterling below 1.11 against the euro, and we should expect further volatility with concerns still high that the UK could end the transition year without a trade deal in place.”