A pivotal moment
As the end of lockdown roadmap is unveiled, what extra support is needed for businesses?
After close to a year of lockdown life, with announcements in recent days detailing how England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will gradually ease their current restrictions it seems that, finally, a cautious sense of optimism is building.
The unveiling of ‘roadmaps’ out of lockdown have come days before Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is due to announce his 2021 Budget, which is expected to outline further support for businesses.
The Budget, to be announced on 3 March, will “set out the next phase of the Government’s plans to tackle the virus, protect jobs and support business,” according to Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman.
However, there are words of warning from the business community on how much support will realistically be needed to ensure business’ survival.
Speaking about Boris Johnson’s roadmap for the easing of restrictions in England, Dr Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Even with the Prime Minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread.”
Mr Marshall believes that “all the key support schemes for business should be extended – through the summer and wherever possible throughout 2021 – to ensure that as many viable firms as possible can make it to the finish line and recover.”
He added that “businesses will hold the Prime Minister to his pledge to support firms for the duration of the pandemic, as this gruelling marathon nears its end.”
Speaking after the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons with his plans on Monday afternoon, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, Mike Cherry, said that the roadmap provided “much needed clarity,” but warned that as many as 250,000 businesses may close as 2021 unfolds.
Mr Cherry said: “The Chancellor must deliver on the Prime Minister’s “whatever it takes” pledge at next week’s Budget. On one side of the coin, we have continued restrictions – on the other, we need corresponding business support.
“Whatever it takes means bringing those overlooked by current support measures into the fold, including suppliers, directors and the newly self-employed. Upwards of a million small business owners and sole traders are currently receiving no direct help whatsoever.
“Extension of business rates reliefs and measures to mitigate the burden of emergency debt will provide small firms with some urgently-needed breathing space as they fight to make it through to the summer.”
OT asked the optical industry what support they’d most like to see when the Chancellor makes his 2021 Budget announcement next Wednesday.
As an independent practice owner, Mohamed Ayyaz Kasmani, of Feltham Eyecare, believes that more support needs to be directed towards small business owners specifically. He said: “I would like to see support for directors. Throughout the pandemic many of us could not furlough ourselves.” He fears that “directors will again feel the brunt of the Budget.”
Valarie Jerome, who owns independent practice Valarie Jerome Optometrists in Newbury, Berkshire, also highlighted the need for support for owners who are sole directors of limited companies, as well as access to local business grants, “because most practices have suffered despite not being forced to close.”
Luke Wren, head of business development at Hakim Group, said that the company would like to see “a reform of business rates and, at the very least, a further 12 months of an amnesty on business rates at a time when all retail businesses and footfall on the High Street has taken a huge downturn.”
Furlough is a key factor for the Hakim Group, Mr Wren said: “It needs to be tapered down in line with the upward recovery of mobility on the High Streets. The retail grants really helped as we went into the first lockdown and, as the High Street has been decimated, we really need the Chancellor to maintain that support. He's been very forthcoming with us during the course of this pandemic and has really given a lot of businesses a lifeline to keep going until we're at the other end.
“This particular budget is probably a pivotal moment in ensuring that we bounce back as fast as possible in the latter part of this year as more and more people get vaccinated. I would plead with the Chancellor to really not hold back. There's been some fantastic support already provided. This is the moment not to try and balance the books, but to ensure that businesses continue to thrive and that they can pay their taxes.”
Mr Wren added: “All businesses will be looking to the Chancellor with optimism, that there will be no reduction in the support along with some additional measures to help us come through what we hope is the twilight of this pandemic.”
Specsavers has also emphasised the need for a continuation of furlough, as well as a rethink of business rates.
CEO John Perkins told OT: “As we are in changing times, we’d like the Government's next budget announcement to include some flexibility, as well as to be aligned to the needs of the primary care sector.
“For optometry this means continuing to have furlough as an option (if a business needs it). A review of business rates would be welcome, given the uncertainty for all businesses at this difficult time.”
He added: “I’m sure many people thank the Government for any provision of PPE via the NHS supply chain, which we hope can continue.”
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