Freedom Day was a weird one for a lot of people, particularly small businesses. Rather than popping the champagne corks, many tell me they still feel like hostages to fortune, trying to conjure yet more stamina for another uncertain few months.
The ‘pingdemic’, which brought staff shortages and supply chain hurdles, has added complexity and confusion to a summer that was meant to be characterised by good, old-fashioned ‘fun’.
It is, of course, an amazing step forward for those businesses across the hospitality, events and night-time economy that can open fully again. These are sectors that have faced extreme hardship over the last 18 months, despite being vibrant and inspirational beacons of our communities and culture.
However, the removal of restrictions has also put fresh pressure on business owners, many of whom have decided to keep mask requirements and social distancing in place in the short term, to protect staff and customers. Small businesses are very in touch with their customers and their communities. Their decision to keep these measures is born out of genuine care and concern – because they know local vulnerable people, or perhaps their staff have concerns.
But without clear back-up from the law to support their approach many of our entrepreneurs feel forced into an impossible situation. How to implement rules that they feel are necessary, without jeopardising some customer relationships? Particularly when they need to engage these customers more than ever to get back on their feet.
I have always maintained that the UK’s recovery will be small business led; that the independents making up our high streets, our supply chains, our innovation, and our positivity will be the driving force behind jobs and economic growth.
Research from PayPal in June underlines the promise out there. Encouragingly, its Business of Change: Recovery & Rebuild report found that 69% of small businesses have been feeling optimistic about the future with ambitious plans in place for the upcoming 12 months. Over a third (35 per cent) also believe the pandemic has been a positive catalyst for change, particularly as their digital skills soared.
The impact of COVID-19 has certainly reshaped the economy for the long-term. And while this was undoubtedly a painful process for small businesses, PayPal’s report underlines that many small firms are now in a stronger and more resilient position.
However, it also revealed just how much these small businesses have endured. Two in five (42 per cent) said they considered giving up on their business during the toughest moments of lockdown.
With the pandemic far from over and the outlook for the next few months unclear, we can’t let our small businesses go back here. We can’t let them lose their optimism and their hope. We can’t let them manage this all on their own.
At the very minimum, we must recognise the enormous burden small businesses are still carrying. But more clarity is needed from government, and we need a serious display of support and understanding from the public, along with big business and enterprise experts and organisations.
There is no doubt that many of Britain’s small firms are still here today because of this kind of support, and because they made that important leap and adapted. Small firms are going to need to keep this up in spades. Many would be wise to keep their ‘pivots’ or adapt them even further, to ensure they are ready to handle whatever comes next.
The last month has proven that, however much we might want it to be over, we just can’t call time on this pandemic. While we should certainly celebrate all the fantastic wins out there ‘ particularly the brilliant success of the UK’s vaccination programme, and the amazing way small businesses have persevered, adapted, and developed’ there just isn’t a neat finish line for small businesses.
The millions of amazing business owners up and down the country are in it for as long as it takes, and we must be there with them. Our nation’s recovery depends on us all having their backs and helping small firms over the remaining obstacles standing in their way.