COVID-19: A clear and present danger precedes a much bigger problem

Mar 18, 2020

An open letter on COVID-19 

by Michael Garvey, Chairman of Buckinghamshire Business First.

Michael Garvey

COVID-19 is preoccupying all of our thoughts and is a clear and present danger to the health of many vulnerable people. But long after the pandemic has subsided, we will be faced with a much bigger problem: a widespread economic recession. 

Businesses in Bucks are mostly small and don’t carry large reserves. They are already feeling the impact of the growing run on confidence and the team at Buckinghamshire Business First has received many calls from businesses today that are threatened with failure. 

Businesses, including mine, are making contingency plans to make people redundant/cut salaries/dramatically reduce expenditure/stop investing and even if the sector they work in isn’t currently directly affected, there is a sense that sooner rather than later all businesses will be. Travel and hospitality businesses are seeing negative bookings and others are reporting turnover down by 90%. 

I know that some innovative businesses are thinking about trying to reallocate team members to other businesses that aren’t affected, rather than lose them completely. Recruiting and training good people is expensive and time consuming and simply laying them off seems like an old fashioned approach, especially as it is hoped that once the health crisis is over and the economy picks up businesses will start to grow again and one of the biggest challenges will be finding skilled people. 

What if there was a widespread way of redeploying people to other businesses, or it to public service to cover people unable to work or where additional resources are needed. 

What if we knew what every business in the county does, what their specialism is, what trained people they have and what capacity they have to help or where they need help.  

Buckinghamshire Business First has a membership of 12,000 businesses employing 70% of the employed people in Bucks. We have much of this information available now and we can communicate quickly and effectively to fill the information gaps.

We can achieve three things that will not just directly help the business sector: 

  1. Provide a triage service for businesses in difficulty who need advice and support in areas such as HR, finance, security, marketing and property. We can put together panels of experts and with my own property expertise, for example, I can assist companies with restructuring leases by negotiating with their landlords to obtain rent free periods and reduce costs.
  2. Act as an intermediary between businesses and the public sector to see what resources (people and skills) can be made available. This could be drivers, catering staff, logistics experts or manufacturers that could be making alternative goods.
  3. Support businesses as things get back to normal with knowledge and resources to accelerate growth. 

This needs financial resources to be allocated now. This isn’t going to be achieved on a voluntary basis. Whilst many will offer to help, they have businesses to run and staff to pay. 

Buckinghamshire Business First can second significant additional resources from the business community at short notice; people with strategic skills and relationship that will make a difference. 

We will need access to significant funds from government or other agencies. 

We can scale this beyond the county if required. Clearly, some businesses will have skills that are nationally important. If the government uses just existing supply lines, there are likely to be delays and challenges and undoubtedly profiteering. 

We are lucky to have political, business, healthcare and education alignment in Bucks that should make getting things done more straightforward. We need to act quickly and think differently though and break through any barriers if we are going to make a difference.

Investing now to save jobs will be much cheaper and less damaging than picking up the pieces afterwards. 

Team Bucks is a phrase that has been coined to describe how different stakeholders have been working together in economic development; let’s extend this to achieve much more. 

How do we achieve this? Please socialise this if you think we can find a way to make this work. I appreciate you will have their own priorities and have a greater understanding of some of the issues, but we will achieve more if we work collectively and between us, we will have different but complementary perspectives. 

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