The level of financial support for businesses required to close by law during the most recent lockdown has been found to be grossly inadequate, according to a Business West survey which found that government grants covered less than a quarter of businesses overheads.
More than half of the businesses across South West England that remained shuttered during the month of November, including restaurants, cafes and non-essential retailers, reported that government financial support failed to cover a quarter of their most basic costs, putting jobs and their business’s survival on the line.
A Gloucestershire publican who wishes to remain anonymous chastised the government for reigning in support at a time when businesses needed it the most. The publican said: “£1334 of government grants will never cover any businesses fixed costs for one week let alone a month. The grant covers maybe 10 per cent of my fixed costs.”
A further assessment of the dwindling scope and generosity of government financial support available to businesses badly affected by the COVID-19 crisis was offered by respondents reliant on the high-street and hospitality industry remaining open for business.
“I have a small retail premises with an off sales license, I get no support, but due to the closure of hospitality my business has disappeared,” said a Bath-based food and drinks supplier.
“We have not been mandated to close, but we cannot do any business because the places we support have been mandated to close. Consequently, there is no support available for us,” said an events business which operates across the region and whose sales plummeted 70 per cent during lockdown.
Government’s last-minute decision to extend the furlough scheme also provoked fury, with a Bath media business labelling the timing of the U-turn on the eve of lockdown “a disgrace”.
Highlighting the human and business costs of such a move, the business owner continued: “people have been made redundant based on following government guidance that was subsequently reversed. Companies have made choices they didn’t have to.”
In addition to these findings, the quarterly survey, which ran between 5 and 27 November and attracted 497 responses, helps to paint a more general picture of waning business confidence as the coronavirus pandemic continues:
- More than a third of businesses across the region cut their investment in new plant, research & development, staff training and expansion into new commercial property in the three months to November.
- Half of businesses surveyed reported a further decline in their cash flows from the previous quarter and a consequent increase in indebtedness during Q4, having already endured nine months of financial contraction due to COVID-19.
- Turnover and profitability have generally fallen.
- More than 70 per cent of businesses reported that they are operating below capacity, indicative of a decrease in the competitiveness of the overall economy, and the capacity to bounce back in the long term.
- A worrying 41% of businesses expect their profitability to drop over the course of the next 12 months, compared to 32% who expect an improvement.
Phil Smith, Managing Director at Business West said:“The trends are clear – the second national lockdown has deepened the business community’s declining confidence in the economy overall and in their business performance.
“Weak demand and the general economic uncertainty present an extremely difficult environment for businesses to operate and prosper. The economic expectations of the UK economy for the next 12 months are negative for a majority (60%) of businesses, with only 15% report being confident. These numbers are in line with the expectations published last quarter.
“Twice as many businesses had a negative outlook for the UK economy as a whole in Q4 2020 compared to Q4 2019, driven by a large extent by concerns about general economic conditions and general business uncertainty – a continuation compared to previous quarters and also this time last year. Brexit has been a consistent major factor of concern over recent years.
“Looking forward to 2021 businesses will look to government, both local and national, to deliver a more stable, predictable and commerce friendly environment to support economic recovery. Many businesses will be looking forward to the end of the year hoping 2021 brings a more hospitable outlook.”
Phil added: “With lockdown followed by the imposition of Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions across our region, the financial support from grants to closed or badly hit businesses is currently far less generous than earlier on in the pandemic. Government may think that these businesses are well catered for, but our polling shows that many are hurting badly.
“As mass vaccinations get underway, now is not the time to skimp on support for local businesses unable to operate normally. If we are a matter of months away from businesses being able to return something approaching normality, why undo all the hard work now?
“While the extension of furlough until the end of March is welcomed, a few more months of comprehensive financial support for businesses hit hardest by the pandemic pales in comparison to the billions already spent by government this year.
“Clearly there is a need for government to balance its books and 2021 will undoubtedly see some tough choices being made. However, with an effective vaccine finally in our grasp, government needs to heed its own general message to the public and hang on in there just a little while longer and continue to support businesses into the spring.”