When Harold Macmillan was asked what was most likely to blow a government off course he famously replied “events dear boy, events”. This has never been more true than at present, when a new Government elected with the message of ‘levelling-up’ the regions and spreading prosperity throughout the UK instead finds itself consumed by the response to the coronavirus, COVID-19, which has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.
As we face this great challenge our immediate concern will be for the health of loved ones, with the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions at the forefront of our minds. But the health of the economy, and people’s ability to earn their living are intrinsically linked. We are advising people to follow the latest government medical advice and for businesses to avail of the information on the FSB website which is available to members and non-members alike. This is a confusing time for business, with different approaches taken in the UK and Republic of Ireland, and many businesses weighing up the evidence and taking unilateral steps. At this present time the onus is on the business owner to decide how to best to minimise risk and, while some have introduced working-from-home, this is not suitable for every type of business and approaches will undoubtedly differ. In recent days many members have expressed concern about the impact the fallout of COVID-19 will have on the sustainability of their businesses, as behaviours change in light of the unfolding situation.
While some say the health of citizens is paramount and the economy is irrelevant, this is a gross misrepresentation as the two priorities are not mutually exclusive. Lives and livelihoods both matter. The health of our people and the health of our economy are in lockstep; if we look at the countries with the best health outcomes they are usually also the countries which are most prosperous. In order to ensure the economic impact of the coronavirus is kept to a minimum and does not do lasting, irreparable damage there is a need to support businesses through this temporary period to ensure that they can continue to sustain and create jobs throughout and beyond this emergency.
In the recent Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought forward a range of measures to support small businesses, such as enabling them to recoup costs for Statutory Sick Pay for staff having to self-isolate. In the weeks to come, a temporary Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will be launched to support businesses to access bank lending and overdrafts. These are welcome measures and is vital that mechanisms are put in place as soon as possible to make sure this funding is made easy for firms to access. Other measures brought forward by the Chancellor apply to England only, such as the decision to provide a 12 month rates holiday for businesses with a valuation of less than £51,000 and a grant fund for the sectors most impacted. Over the weekend the Scottish Government brought forward a similar range of comprehensive measures, and the Government in the Republic of Ireland has also taken steps to support business.
It is crucial that Northern Ireland is not the outlier, where businesses are not appropriately supported. FSB has already written to the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, outlining the crucial need to embed and extend the scope of the Small Business Rate Relief scheme in tandem with a rapid and generous response to ameliorate the worst effects caused by behavioural changes due to the coronavirus. Over the weekend, FSB joined with other business organisations and Chambers of Commerce throughout Northern Ireland to write to the First and deputy First Minister, offering to work in partnership as business and government seek to meet the challenge facing our society and economy. It was disheartening to see that the collegiate spirit which was evident within the business community was sadly lacking within the political establishment.
In this time of need, the Executive must show leadership and rise to the enormity of the task. Failure to support small businesses at this juncture would have severe consequences for communities and employment, and would be seen as unforgiveable by our small business community.