It's hard to take in how much changed, and how quickly, for so many of us as the Covid-19 emergency took hold.
The necessary lockdown to help protect the NHS has had a profound and immediate impact on our lives and businesses. Some small firms, such as shops and hotels, saw their entire business close down immediately. Others saw orders and contracts dry up overnight.
Among those that could keep functioning, many faced the challenge of operating from home.
More than 40 per cent of small businesses and the self-employed were forced to close, and over 70 per cent had to furlough staff – one of the new schemes introduced by the Chancellor that FSB had called for.
Many were frightened – not only about their health and that of their loved ones, but also about their livelihoods. A lot still cannot operate even now, or can only do so with a reduced level of business. But among all of this, plenty of small businesses played an even greater role in their communities and our society.
As we adapt to the ‘new normal’, I firmly believe that small business ingenuity and innovation will be at the heart of the economic recovery. It began with stories of small firms switching manufacturing lines to produce ventilators or personal protective equipment for the health and social care sectors; others provided deliveries of vital supplies to more vulnerable people in their communities.
As time has gone by, many other businesses have adapted – pubs offering takeaway meals, or restaurants turning themselves into mini-supermarkets, for example.
Digital technology, such as online sales platforms and delivery apps, has been key in helping a lot of smaller firms keep going. It’s also playing a greater role in keeping small businesses owners connected through this emergency. It’s hard to see the world returning to exactly how it was ‘before’, even when restrictions are fully lifted.
This renaissance in innovation and agility will be vital. There is a need for support in upskilling those who must explore new ways of working or types of business. Many consumers have become used to relying on smaller, local businesses.
This was most obviously the case with food retail – small shops have been vital in keeping communities going, and more people have seen the benefit of shopping local or having deliveries from independent businesses.
The social and community benefit of a strong small business sector has never been more meaningfully demonstrated in my lifetime. Some have found overseas customers via online sales and digital platforms. Some have found new ways to market via social media. And many have discovered virtual networking events and webinars, where experience and advice can be shared.
The economy is going to go through an extremely difficult period, and the nation’s finances will take time to recover from the billions of pounds spent on emergency support schemes. But with the right help and support, small businesses will be the drivers of this recovery. That’s not only important for the businesses themselves, but for the communities they’re in, the services they provide, the jobs and wealth they create, and, ultimately, the UK economy as a whole.