I have spoken to lots of business owners in the past 24 hours, and I must admit there is a sense of there being a light at the end of what is now becoming a long old tunnel. But is this optimism backed by fact or sentiment?
I think this third lockdown has been by far the worst. Probably January blues, (some people were foolish enough to add the travails of a dry January to this pervading gloom. Me? I know when to choose my battles); crap weather; stats showing job losses and business closures are going to increase until November; no travel; no friends; no treats… and more, have combined to create a sense of ennui even among those of us who have a reasonable home office with working wi-fi. Somebody in their 20s said to me the other day from his bedroom in a small flat ‘this is no longer working from home; this is living in the office.’ So, we’ve all had enough.
But is this roadmap actually good enough? I’m a behavioural economist at heart, so believe that confidence and resilience go a long way in SME-land. But the milestones of this map are simply not clear enough for most businesses. What I wanted to see was a stable playing surface for business right through to the end of FY March ’22. Proper reassurance that would enable businesses to plan their 21-22 budget knowing that the Furlough scheme, Business Rate Relief and VAT Holiday were all extended till then. This would have enabled investment, recruitment, marketing spend to have been forecast with confidence. The British Chambers of Commerce are still lobbying the Treasury hoping that some of these measures will be in the Budget on March 3.
But what we have for the time being is four stages of three weeks, each followed by two weeks holding our breath and crossing fingers before we know exactly what will be allowed at the next stage or, God forfend, taken away if Covid stats move in the wrong direction. This piecemeal approach will end up costing the Treasury more than extending the support schemes, if unemployment rockets, SME owners close their businesses, and mental health issues flood the care system.
So, we are continuing to press for clarity and stability for longer. It makes sense from business, employee and country perspectives.
But I’m not a grump. I’m looking forward to a party as much as the next socially deprived human. So, fingers crossed and get out there and support local business! Get the new outfit bought for your coming out party; book a table or two for special friends on April 12; see what theatres, cinemas and leisure attractions are putting on, and get ready to enjoy yourself. There. I feel better already.
Kim Conchie is the chief executive of the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and Industry.