Since my contribution to this page just four weeks ago, the business landscape in Northern Ireland and indeed globally, has changed almost beyond recognition. The impact of COVID-19 has catapulted businesses leaders and employees into a place few could have prepared for.
As President of NI Chamber, and an employer in the construction sector, I am extremely conscious that our top priority is the protection of health and wellbeing of our colleagues and their families. I therefore commend the actions taken by the majority of businesses to protect their workforce as well as doing their utmost to protect jobs and sustain enterprises in these challenging times so that the basis for a strong recovery is preserved.
Over the last few weeks many business have come under pressure to close and unlike other areas, there is no approved list of business sectors that can remain open. NI Chamber along with other membership organisations therefore pressed the NI Executive to produce a list like the rest of the UK and Ireland. As a result a COVID-19 Engagement Forum was established involving business organisations, trade unions, the Public Health Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and local government. As a member of the Forum I will work hard on your behalf to advise the NI Executive on how to ensure the safety of key workers and essential businesses, as well as develop an approved list of businesses that can remain open.
The other big pressure has been access to the many innovative support packages announced by Government recently. Firms may be able to avail of rates relief and the Job Retention Scheme but they can’t survive without income. Therefore in terms of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), the Chancellor’s announcement last week is very much welcomed and should address some of the challenges that we highlighted. His extension of the CBILS so that all viable small businesses affected by COVID-19, and not just those unable to secure regular commercial financing, will now be eligible should they need finance to keep operating during this difficult time is important. Also the removal of personal guarantees for all commercial loans below £250K and making operational changes to speed up lending approvals is also very welcome.
In terms of new support, the introduction of the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) will ensure that firms with a turnover in excess of £45m are able to benefit from government-backed support, and closes a significant gap in the existing package that was available. It is now critical that banks act quickly to help businesses avail of this support and see the COVID-19 crisis through.
It is evident that business needs support as a matter of priority but that is also not the only news story emerging from the private sector. Companies also have an incredibly important active role to play as part of national efforts and we’re witnessing some outstanding and innovative contributions to this. I commend the innovative work of many firms to support the Health Service and other sectors by diverting to PPE production or manufacturing products for the vital Nightingale Hospitals – firms such as Glen Dimplex, The McAvoy Group, Assa Abloy and Sperrin Metal to name a few.
Northern Ireland’s businesses are resilient and with the right support, the vast majority can come back from this. For our part, at NI Chamber we are committed to doing everything we can to help.