Hour of need: Helping those hit hard by Covid-19

  • 06 Oct 2020

When the Covid-19 crisis hit, FSB was on hand to help thousands of small firms at a local level all over the UK. The businesses featured here are just a few examples. 
Jo Faragher finds out more.

When coronavirus hit in March, thousands of small businesses saw their custom disappear, with many closing their doors until lockdown eased weeks later. 

“FSB’s UK public affairs team worked tirelessly and quickly to get the most support for the most small businesses,” says Martin McTague, National Vice Chair, Policy and Advocacy, at FSB. “We got new measures put in place in a matter of days which would normally take years to design.” 

 

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or furlough, was one of the first support mechanisms to be announced, but there was an agonising wait before small business grants and help for the self-employed came through, which left many small businesses wondering how many days of cash flow they might have left. In April – when many were struggling to get access to their banks to get an emergency loan – one network of accountants predicted that a fifth of small businesses could go under in a matter of weeks. 

Many turned to local FSB representatives during this time, finding a vital source of advice and a voice for them where it mattered. “Often when I watched the news on coronavirus, FSB was being interviewed, which made me feel they were doing the right things by their members,” remembers Cecilia Grigor, founder of marketing, events and virtual PA service Planit, whose local FSB representative secured her a hardship grant when she thought she might miss out. 

FSB was the first business group to launch a dedicated Covid-19 hub to help all small businesses, back in February. And while members have accessed the host of resources available centrally – from furlough templates to printable signage to let people know they’re open again – it has been the local, targeted support that has mattered the most. Here’s how FSB helped three members survive. 

Planit Scotland 

Without the support she received during lockdown, Cecilia Grigor believes she would have been lost and facing a very different future. Her Inverness and Highland-based company Planit Scotland, which offers marketing, events and a range of outsourced business services, was hit hard by the pandemic, and it looked as though the company might fall through the cracks in terms of Government support.

“We don’t pay rates as we work remotely, so we were offered no financial support,” she says. “If I’d had a tiny office with no staff I could have got a £10,000 grant, but with six employees based at home I couldn’t get anything.”

Ms Grigor took to Twitter to air her frustration and seek support from her MP, Drew Hendry. Her local FSB development manager David Richardson was on the case, as he knew Mr Hendry was championing this loophole and needed case studies.

Thanks to the local lobbying efforts of FSB, Planit was able to access a hardship grant. But the support didn’t end there. “David advised me to look at my contracts and apply for the furlough scheme,” say Ms Grigor. “I joined FSB webinars on furlough and it was good to see people fighting our corner. I was able to pass on advice to my clients, too.”
Ms Grigor initially put all of her employees on furlough to give her time to look at what clients needed moving forward.  

 

"Although there have been some redundancies within the business, it has been able to recruit for new positions to support clients with a Covid recovery plan. The events side of the business has been badly affected due to social distancing restrictions, but “not having all our eggs in one basket” means the company has been able to keep going. “We’re leaner, but we have definitely come out stronger,” she says.

“There were also so many changes to the schemes, and we don’t have an internal HR person; FSB helped us to ensure we were doing things right,” she adds. “Considering the cost of membership versus the value we’re getting, it’s great. I often recommend FSB to my clients.”

Totally Wonderfuel 

At the start of 2020, Mel Varvel of food business Totally Wonderfuel was booked for a packed calendar of events. Her mobile trailer offers healthy recovery foods and coffee at sporting meets such as triathlons and running events, but the pandemic led to cancellations across the board from March until late summer. “Lots of the most lucrative ones, for example with the National Trust or corporate events, were cancelled from the word go,” she explains. 

While she was able to offer some online sales of deliverable items such as protein balls, and do home deliveries for some perishable products, her income was severely impacted by the virus. However, attending a local FSB online support event on how hospitality businesses in the south west could get back on their feet helped her to see 
light at the end of the tunnel. 

“It helped reassure me that other businesses were in a similar boat in terms of trying 
to get to grips with what they needed to do,” she says. 

“I was able to ask very specific questions such as could I take cash, as remote locations sometimes mean contactless payment is difficult, and whether I had to have a screen, which might not work in the confined space of the trailer.” Environmental health officers were at the event to advise on sanitation issues and new regulations, too. 

 

Ms Varvel applied for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme but her profits were offset against the purchase of her trailer when she set up the business five years ago, meaning she did not qualify for a grant. But her local FSB development manager, Nicola Bailey, was able to alert her to the second stage of a local council grant in Dorset that was being extended to people operating from residential properties as well as those based in rateable premises. “Had I not been in touch with FSB I might have missed this,” she says. 

A slow return to ‘normal’ will begin with local events as she adapts to using PPE and new signage. “I don’t really know how things will go until I do it, but I’ll use it as an opportunity to refine what I do,” she concludes.

Kingdom Come 

When the Welsh Government first imposed lockdown restrictions on 23 March, Abergavenny-based soft play centre Kingdom Come had already been closed all weekend, following the closure of Welsh schools the Friday before. 

Owner Tracey James hoped she’d be eligible for a grant for the retail, leisure and hospitality industry, given the centre offered events and parties. “It turned out soft play centres were on an exemption list, so we were turned down,” she explains. Ms James asked for advice from Rob Basini, FSB development manager for South Wales, and later found out that centres in other parts of Wales had been eligible for the support.

 

 

Mr Basini helped Kingdom Come argue that similar businesses had been able to access the grant where other councils had used their discretion, and they took the case to MPs and Members of the Senedd in the Welsh Government. The initial decision was overturned and the business was taken off the exemption list. “FSB has been so helpful,” adds Ms James. “We felt like we could chat to Rob at any time to build a case and get momentum going. He helped us find the right platform and message for our voice to be heard.” 

The grant helped the centre continue to pay its rates and invest in materials to help it open safely, which was scheduled for 17 September. The business bought a fogging machine to disinfect the play area and sanitising stations, and is looking into layout alterations and chemical cleans to keep the surfaces safe. “We feel lucky for the support we received as we knew we’d be one of the last to open again,” Ms James says. “We’re part of the community and the children have missed out.”  

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