The fifth weekly Suffolk Chamber of Commerce survey into how its members are responding to the spread of the COVID-19 virus suggests that access to promised Government funding is improving after a shaky start.
However, it is also clear that the gaps in grant and loan eligibility are causing many smaller businesses real problems and more generally the overall situation regarding access to customers is further declining – suggesting a further decline in future business activity.
The survey, conducted yesterday (Thursday, April 8) over a few hours, showed broadly similar figures in terms of the number of Suffolk Chamber members applying for or thinking of accessing Government-backed schemes from week four of the survey to week five.
Encouragingly, the responses from the 130 participating companies suggests that the access to these schemes is improving as the Government listens to the lobbying of bodies such as Suffolk Chamber to simplify and streamline the application processes.
A total of 47% rated the ease of applying as very easy or easy, compared with just 30% last week.
However, the survey also heard from dozens of firms who are excluded from the schemes, such as the Job Retention Scheme and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). These included directors of small owner managed businesses that receive their main income taken from company dividends. In addition, although many of the self-employed now have access to some support, those earning above £50k a year are excluded – even though many have seen their businesses all but cease trading.
In addition, the latest data shows a worrying further decline in domestic business activity, with 66% of companies saying that they were worried about accessing their domestic customers, up from 55% the previous week and the fourth consecutive rise.
Linked to this, there was also more activity among companies looking to source new supply chains – up from 21% last week to 25% this.
A number of company owners also reported their growing concerns for the mental and physical health and wellbeing of their staff, whether they have been already furloughed, are working remotely or still coming to work on the firms’ premises.
Paul Simon, Suffolk Chamber’s head of communications and campaigns, said: “The good news is that more of the various business assistance schemes seem to be getting cash into the hands of hard-pressed companies than in the previous week. Suffolk Chamber has been lobbying hard for improvements, not least as regards encouraging banks and other lenders to treat all relevant companies fairly as they apply under CBILS.
“But more – much more – needs to be done for the thousands of Suffolk firms that seem to have fallen through the net and who are struggling to hold onto domestic contracts and customers as this crisis tightens its grip.”