Small business matters in Northern Ireland

  • 09 Nov 2020

This is our monthly small business column from the regional chair of FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) Northern Ireland, Brendan Kearney

Brendan has been self-employed for the last 44 years mainly across the catering industry. For the past seven years he has led a private medical insurance brokerage and currently employs 14 people. Brendan has been involved with the FSB over the last 20 plus years at various levels between branch, policy and regional levels within the organisation

Déjà vu but different…

As an Autumnal second wave of Covid-19 ravages through Northern Ireland – we find ourselves once more in a situation of local restrictions, a sort of “lockdown lite” as it has been termed by some. For hospitality businesses in the Derry City and Strabane council area, they are now a few weeks into restrictions and the rest of us a week or so into a four-week strategy by the Executive to bring the rocketing transmission numbers back under control to alleviate pressure on our health service.

 

We have been here before but many things seem different this time. For one, the “in this together” mentality that saw the doorstep clapping for the NHS and the stringent following of the rules has somewhat waned. The mask/no mask debate has been quite toxic as played out on social media and the blame game has polarised what in Spring was a collective sense of pulling together.

Not all businesses have been asked to close this time around, with hospitality and close-contact business “bearing the brunt” as such. This seems unfair to many with the amount of expenditure in modifications to make these work environments safe for staff and customers. We heard from many members who, though not directly asked to close, fall into the supply chain of those who are – felt left in some form of limbo when the announcements were made.

The local FSB team have once again expressed to Ministers the need for more clarity around their messaging when it comes to announcements like this – leaving no room for ambiguity. We had members contacting us seeking clarity on whether it meant they had to close and this simply is not good enough. 2020 has brought enough stress and anxiety for business owners without having to decipher for themselves what Government announcements mean because of a lack of clear guidance. They need clarity of message and again, we had implored that the financial support mechanisms should be ready to go at the time of restriction announcements without this sense of “is there financial support and when can we get it?”. We have been here before so time should have been spent preparing and planning for hitting the ground running when businesses have to close because of restrictions.

 

Now that the financial support packages have been outlined by the Department of Economy and Department of Finance, we await to see how seamlessly business applications are processed and payments made. There are to be provisions for supply chain businesses to the sectors asked to close and an indication of support for some self-employed, at the time of writing this we are still waiting for clarifications on this funding and its roll out. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has also made enhancements to the Self Employment Income Support Scheme and there are also changes to the Job Support Scheme, which make it more accessible for businesses to use. But the whole area of end of furlough, JSS etc can be quite confusing and case unique so we urge that you seek proper advice around these before taking action, FSB members have access to qualified advice through the legal and employment helpline.

We now of course also have our school children on an extended break of two weeks and that has also brought some additional strain for employers trying to cope with employees who have no childcare options. Other knock-on effects include the impact of reduced footfall on the high street with hospitality closures and office workers advised to “work from home if you can”. Thus, our retailers and other high street based businesses are reeling from the downturn of trade.

I can appreciate things are far from ideal, there are frustrations and anxiety, we all must dig deep to keep a positive mindset and hope that the “circuit breaker” stems the Covid-19 spread enough to allow us to fully reopen and rebuild in the run up to Christmas. Our shared hope will be that 2021 will bring brighter times for our local economy but again, we cannot lose sight of the end of the Brexit transition period and ensure that we are prepared for any impact this will have on our business. There are worrying statistics around the lack of preparation that Northern Ireland businesses have made – so I would urge that you immediately take a look at various scenarios and what you need to do to prepare. FSB Northern Ireland have organised a “Brexit” focussed webinar on the 18th of November as part of our “SME 360” webinar series. In it we will be discussing supply chains, business readiness support, transport and logistics and have an expert panel of speakers involved. Our message is clear – don’t leave it another minute, don’t stick your head in the sand and anticipate that everything will OK, be proactive and research, plan and prepare so there are no unexpected pressures on your business from January 1st.

On a final note, we continue to be impressed by the innovation and positivity of so many of our members in the face of various adversities they have encountered this year. Small business resilience, though tested, continues to be a shining light – please keep it going!

 

Feel free to contact us with topics you would like this column to cover or for general feedback on the small business issues FSB Northern Ireland should be working on by emailing [email protected] or contacting your local Development Manager [email protected]. The special Covid Hub on www.fsb.org.uk has relevant resources and information available for all small businesses and the self-employed. Our members have full access to the legal hub and 24/7 employment & legal helpline for guidance and advice.