THE despair of those businesses forcibly shut down on Friday night is hardly surprising. If you had done everything asked of you – and more – to make your premises compliant, protect your staff and ensure your customers can have a fun, safe time, you’d feel pretty sick too.

More widely, we also saw the crystallisation of concerns about how this latest phase of the pandemic is being managed.

A lot of this surrounds the communications – or, specifically, the weeks of speculation around the severest measures that are reportedly on the table in the run-up to official announcements, which then don’t come to pass.

The “circuit-breaker” lockdown chat that was doing the rounds from about mid-September is the latest example.

It’s an old, well-worn tactic: warn someone that their car might need to be scrapped, then accept their gratitude when it turns out all it needs is a thousand pounds’ worth of repairs.

But we’re not talking about softening up the public for bad news about how much it’s going to cost to get their car through its MOT. We’re sending messages to people who need reliable information on which to base important business decisions. They shouldn’t be trying to decode media reports to work out what’s actually going to happen.

Further, at a time when many business owners’ mental health is under severe strain, this endless speculation, the waiting and uncertainty, causes real, unnecessary damage.

However, a lot of this anxiety – and the frustration it fuels – could be addressed if the path ahead for business was clearer. And we could do that by making the process around announcements on new restrictions slightly more open and joined up.

At the moment, you have the big announcement itself, followed by regulations, then guidance explaining the regulations and any necessary business support package, all agreed and announced separately.

This creates issues for those businesses whose operations may be impacted by the new rules. They need to act now, but are feeling their way towards a decision because, say, the guidance isn’t yet ready or they don’t know what financial support is available.

Now, to be fair, all these various elements were more joined up this time round. And it’s good that business was invited to play some part in the design of the support measures.

But what we could do instead is develop each aspect – from the headline measures to the support required – in parallel, so that the whole new set of rules are ready to go as a single package.

This might sound ambitious. But we already know, for example, the sort of questions that businesses ask in the wake of these announcements, because they are pretty much the same every time. We know where there will be grey areas and questions of where lines are to be drawn.

So, if we also knew what options were on the table, we could identify what details will need ironed out for each one. Then, even if the final decision isn’t taken by ministers until the last minute, enough preparatory work would still have been done to pull the complete package together in good time.

This would also avoid things like last week’s U-turn on licensed cafes, as the issue would have been spotted and sorted.

Of course, in times like this, governments must be able to act and react quickly – and no-one wants to see an effective response mired in endless consultation. But, by opening up the decision-making process a little, it will make the messaging stronger and, hence, the measures more effective.

It will also help businesses plan for what looks like another very tough six months ahead by making it clear what’s actually on the table.

Colin Borland is director of devolved nations at the Federation of Small Businesses