Government support vital to help firms overcome COVID-19 and Brexit issues

Chris Fletcher

Business across the region need continued support to help them overcome problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

That was the clear finding from the first business survey this year conducted jointly by North West-based chambers of commerce.

The third national lockdown has contributed to a sharp decrease in demand, according to the COVID-19 and Brexit Impact Tracker survey conducted between January 18, and February 2, by British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

The BCC’s previous survey, the Economic Survey for the fourth quarter of 2020, showed that demand had weakened to levels similar to those recorded in June 2020.

The latest survey results showed that businesses based in the North West faced reduced sales to both domestic and overseas customers.

Customer demand has weakened considerably since December and is now at its lowest levels since at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

Weakened cash positions are another major worry for business with more than a quarter of survey respondents saying they only have enough cash reserves to see them through for the next three months.

The survey results show that 48% of North West businesses have taken on additional debt to maintain cash flow during the pandemic. The combination of poor cash positions, reduced capacity utilisation and weak demand means that the prospects for capital investment and recruitment remain weak, at least in the short term.

On Brexit, the survey sought to understand the extent to which businesses found it easy or difficult to adapt to changes in trading goods and/or services under the terms of the new UK-EU trade agreement.

Three-fourths of businesses that are currently trading with EU markets reported serious difficulties in preparing for the new rules. Of these, 15% are preparing to scale down EU trade because they find the new procedures too complex or costly to comply with.

Chris Fletcher, director of policy and campaigns at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said: “The third national lockdown has stifled both the supply and demand sides of the economy.

“It is almost 11 months since the first lockdown was imposed to address the public health crisis. Over that time, many businesses have scaled down and reduced workforce. Some have shut down permanently.

“The results reveal the extent of reliance businesses have on major support schemes such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

“Business is looking to the Budget. It is absolutely imperative that the Chancellor offers an extension to COVID-related business support schemes to avoid further business failure and job losses.”

Paul Cherpeau, chief executive of Liverpool Chamber, said: “The survey underlines the need for the continuation of government fiscal stimulus and intervention, and we need the Chancellor to take bold and decisive steps to stimulate economic activity, in both the short and the longer term.

“The impact of COVID will be felt well beyond the vaccine-enabled reopening of our economy and without those commitments the Government’s plan to level up the UK economy, particularly here in the North West, will be seriously undermined.

“Post Brexit, Liverpool businesses have reported considerable challenges, particularly the impact on their competitiveness in European and international markets.

“Whilst they are bullish about the longer-term opportunities and the prospects for recovery and growth, we need to continue to push for further clarity and support.”

Tracy Mawson, chief executive at St Helens Chamber, said: “At a time when businesses should be starting to look forwards and plan their recovery as restrictions ease, the additional burden placed on firms trading with Europe, who have not had enough time, clarity or support to adapt to new processes, is too much.

“As a network, chambers have supported countless businesses to expand into new markets overseas, so to see these achievements hampered would be untenable.

“We are calling on the Government to work with us to identify the barriers and take immediate steps to overcome them.”