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Labour can support SMEs through Covid-19 by pushing the Government to provide more effective support

-Praful Nargund

Chair of Islington South & Finsbury CLP, CEO of CREATE Fertility.

CREATE Fertility and abc ivf are focused on innovating more safe, natural and accessible approaches to fertility treatment. The company is heavily involved in research into new methods and launched the most affordable fertility service in western Europe. They have won awards from the London Business School, The Daily Telegraph and was nominated for an Entrepreneurship award by the Evening Standard.

Covid-19 turned the whole world upside down in a matter of weeks. As the crisis engulfed the country, our focus shifted from growth towards difficult choices.

From the beginning, our approach has been to prevent redundancies and to ensure that we could bounce back. In making decisions, we felt an acute sense of responsibility to navigate this crisis successfully; first and foremost to our staff and our patients, but also to play our part as one of many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which will help the country recover more quickly. After 7 weeks in lockdown, our regulator has approved our re-opening. We have worked hard to put in place extensive safety measures, PPE and new ways of working.

While we were lucky; the Government’s efforts here have been shambolic, leaving too many worried about the possibility of going out into an unsafe environment. It has also left many businesses in the lurch, without the clear and unequivocal guidance and support needed to re-open safely.

The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), created to support liquidity, feels as if it was designed with the intention to alienate SMEs. Confusing and contradictory guidelines have created a lengthy, complex process. For SME-owners, who value their self-reliance and independence, adding leverage to your business in the middle of a global crisis feels counter-intuitive. To avoid trapping business in unsustainable debt levels, CBILS can be deployed with alternative structures, such as an overdraft or a revolving credit facility. The reality is that many SMEs are unaware of these CBILS options and are struggling to get the support they need.

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has been more effective but remains far too narrow in scope.  Other schemes abroad, such as in Denmark where we also work, are more organised and responsive, for example by allowing part-time working and taking action to revise their wage cap when it was deemed necessary. The Danes have also provided extensive support for fixed costs, such as rent, preventing the build-up of liabilities which is taking place in the UK. We cannot allow a situation where the Government keeps small businesses alive long enough to survive the crisis, only to collapse on the other side. 

The British schemes are beginning to catch-up and credit should be given to the Labour economic and business teams, which have done a fantastic job pushing the government to make our SME support schemes more straightforward and ensure that they extend to all SMEs. Indeed, the smaller, but simpler and 100% guaranteed Bounce Back loans have seen much higher take-up compared with CBILS.

Our experience is that we had to dramatically change how we work. We innovated alternative ways of working and deployed new digital solutions. Adapting our service goes hand in hand with social distancing; delivering more services from home means fewer people in our clinics. A Coronavirus Adaptation Scheme for SMEs could accelerate a move to more modern and environmentally friendly ways of working.

Government should be looking at how the City and banks can get money flowing into adaptation, so there is life beyond liquidity measures.  Any adaptation scheme could also include non-financial support such as sharing best practice and coordination of existing government initiatives.  Businesses which are currently being described as ‘unviable’ could be transformed and drive the recovery.