24th April 2020
It’s safe to say that the last few weeks have been a uniquely challenging time for the Chamber and the businesses across the North Highlands that we represent. Normally at this time of year we would be absorbing and preparing for any changes announced in the UK and Scottish Budgets, making our projections for the year ahead, and relishing the warmer days and lighter nights that come with Spring.
Instead, many of us find ourselves in a kind of limbo, unable to carry on with business as normal, and with no clear picture of what the future might look like.
This is in no small part down to the continued uncertainty surrounding many of the support schemes announced by Government over the past few weeks. While it has been welcome to see the first tranche of small business grants handed out by Highland Council recently, much of the other support promised by UK and Scottish Government has yet to materialise fully or has turned out to come with unpalatable conditions attached.
The major factor here is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the length of time it has taken to get this up and running. While it is good that HMRC is now processing applications for the scheme, many businesses have remained liable for their wages bill while operating income has shrunk to little or nothing. It also remains to be seen how quickly grant claims will be processed now that the scheme is open.
Coupled with the difficulties businesses have reported so far in accessing the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, this has left many businesses in an untenable position. As the age-old saying goes, “cash is king”, and many businesses simply do not have the cash reserves to keep paying staff indefinitely.
The final blow for many will be the seemingly complete refusal of the insurance industry to cover claims for business interruption. It is galling that businesses have paid often significant sums of money over the years to their insurers only to discover that their claims are being rejected when they most need support.
It has been good to see both UK and Scottish Governments listening to the concerns of businesses and changing their support mechanisms to address these. This is in part due to the work that the Chamber network across Scotland has done in gathering these concerns and bringing them to the attention of decision-makers.
Government and public agencies are now starting to talk about the reset, restart and recovery of the economy post-crisis, which is positive news for businesses. Chambers will play a crucial role in this phase, helping to collate intelligence from businesses and ensure that Government support is directed in a way which best meets their needs.
It has been hugely heartening over the past month to see how businesses across the region have sprung into action to help their local communities, from providing PPE to frontline workers to helping deliver essentials to the most vulnerable in our society.
This crisis has also shown us more than ever that we are part of a network and community of businesses across Scotland. The Chamber and colleagues in the Scottish Chambers network will continue to work tirelessly to bring business concerns to the highest levels of Government and to ensure that as much as possible is being done to support businesses across the whole country.
We may not know what the future holds for us, but with a little extra support from Government, businesses in the North Highlands will stand together to meet whatever challenges it brings.