Access to government-backed loans, thousands in cash grants, help to pay staff, rent freezes, business rates relief and the list could go on. These are only some of the measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to support British businesses as the coronavirus outbreak forces shutters down and empties their pockets.
Yet many food & drink SMEs worry they will miss out on the much-needed support – at a time where their already limited cashflow is squeezed harder than ever – due to loopholes and lack of clarity.
Challenger brands drive almost 60% of the growth in the UK food & drink market, providing consumers with the bang-on-trend products they are looking for. But newly released data from Nucleus Commercial Finance showed over 2.6 million British SMEs predicted they would be out of business within a month, were they suddenly and unexpectedly unable to trade. And that was before the pandemic hit.
The chancellor branded his promised financial intervention “unprecedented in the history of the British state” and his economic response as “one of the most comprehensive in the world”. It certainly is a brave move which will cost the Treasury millions of pounds to help businesses and individuals stay afloat during such an unprecedented situation.
That’s something no one, not even those SMEs whose business is on the line, can dispute.
But there are practical challenges that still need to be addressed.
The one-off cash grants, for example, are only available to companies claiming small business rates relief. Which means SMEs that are run from home or co-working spaces are not eligible to access them.
And those who are eligible have raised concerns over the mode of delivery and timings. Under current guidance, local councils will contact the small businesses in their area and hand them the cash. But with tens of thousands of companies in any one area, confidence councils will deliver on time is running low.
The 80% government-backed loans – offering lending of up to £5m – have so far caused more headaches than solutions, with unclear eligibility criteria left to the banks’ own discretion. Startups are by nature companies in growth stage and, with many currently not profitable, there is widespread fear lenders will take one look at their historical financial accounts and deny them access to cash.
Banks, on the other hand, have had to turn away businesses reaching for help after being inundated with requests since the scheme launched on Monday. Front-line staff told customers they were not ready to process applications as they have not yet received instructions on how to deal with the scheme.
Perhaps even more concerning is that, so far, the available help only comes in the form of debt, which risks affecting SMEs’ business prospects and confidence long after the coronavirus crisis will have passed.
As a popular Italian saying goes, patience is the virtue of the strong – and SMEs have been patient enough to wait for new measures to be announced. The government initial aid is a good start, but time is of the essence and more needs to be done to ensure fast-growing, on-trend suppliers don’t become the first business casualties of this pandemic. After all, patience can only take them so far.