Tuesday 22 September 2020

Government covid dithering is destroying businesses and the economy

We've now been living in the covid world for six months. I'll let you in on a little secret. In the last week of February, my studio business was 7% up on the same week in 2019. Things were looking very positive for us. We were planning a major building project having been doing the rounds on the funds raising circuit. We'd formed a partnership with another company and had exciting plans for expanding our music services offering in Mill Hill. A month later we were closed. In some ways the timing of Covid for us was fortuitous. As we'd been planning to demolish two of our studios and new that we'd be working on restricted income for a period, we'd not been doing our normal capital reinvestments. This meant we had a small pot of money saved which meant we were not faced with oblivion as a business. Government measures also helped. When we reopened in June, we had a clear roadmap abck to normal operation by October. We were aware that this would not be our normal turnover, but our assumption was that we'd have a clear idea of what the financial terrain was like. 

So where are we now as a business. We await an annoucement from Boris at 8pm, which may or may not have catastrophic consequences for our business. We are well run and we put strategies in for managing business risks, but no business can deal with the chaotic changes in policies. Last month we were being given a bung to "Eat out to help out". This month the very same sector is expecting harsh restrictions on operating hours, that will destroy all of the gains of August.

Toi give some idea of where we are,  less than two weeks from October. Last week, our turnover was around 68% of what it was in the same week in 2019. This week, it is currently around 40%. Since the press conference by the studios top scientists, we've taken no bookings. We would normally take 10-20 a day.

 The constant talk of lockdowns and other measures has spooked everyone. No one wants to book studio time, only to find that they are not allowed out of the house. We've brought five of our 13 staff back from furlough. At the end of October, we have a difficult choice. The scheme ends, but the situation hasn't really for businesses. We need some idea of where things are going. We spent a lot of money on making rooms covid safe. We've been marketing to bring customers back, but now we are faced with a situation where no one knows if we'll be let out of our homes in two weeks time. 

 Our customers are not booking rehearsals as they have no gigs. Venues are not booking bands or reopening because they are not sure of the situation. They can't afford to order food and drinks and open the doors, if it will all have to be thrown away. Their staff are now facing a full layoff as the furlough comes to an end. Everyone I know in the leisure and hospitality industry is terrified for the future. I know dozens of musicians who have had to take alternative jobs. Of course no one has a God given right to expect to do the same thing for ever, but one of the jobs of the government is to give us a bit of security. That is why we pay our taxes. If the furlough scheme ends in October, with the situation in a state of flux, most of the money will have been wasted. The jobs won't have been saved. Of course, the Furlough shouldn't be a blank cheque, but as I mentioned earlier, the crisis has been running for six months and we are still having random lock downs, policy being made on the hoof and a chaotic situation for business. I am a member of an association of independent music studios, approx 1/3rd have gone for good in the last six months, others are facing insurmountable challenges. One studio owner posted that they'd turned over a daily profit on seven days of the last six months. We managed five days, encouragingly, three of them were last week, but the second wave uncertainty has meant this week we are back to where we were in mid July, the gains have been lost and we've had six cancellations in the last two days. Commercial landlords are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they force businesses to go under, they may be left with zero income for a lengthy time with big rates bills, if they persist with the tenants, they will end up with huge debt on their books. For them, they have nothing to base a decision on. Many have their own mortgages to pay and their own issues. We are a society built on endemic debt and when there is no cash being generated to service this, we can very quickly find ourselves at the edge of the precipice. In March the government took many measures to easy the blow, but most businesses I speak to are reaching the point where this assistance has been exhausted.

The government has stated all along that it is 'being lead by science'.  If this was the case, they should be able to present a framework for us all detailing what points various measures are enacted, along with an evolving view of what is risky behaviour. I do wonder how much analysis has been done on transmission routes. It seems to me that if the government had seriously invested in understanding thetransmission chain and what really works with regards to breaking it, we'd be in a rather different position now. I had deep reservations regarding the 'Eat out to help out' scheme. The sector desperately needed support, but cramming out restaurants in the middle of a pandemic always struck me as a rather risky strategy. Did Chris Whittey and Sir Patrick Vallence not advise that it may cause a spike? Surely a more cautious approach with targetted support would have been far more prudent? When we reopened our studios, we did a comprehensive risk assessment. Has the government done the same with things such as Eat out to Help out? Will they be publishing these risk assessments? I suspect that if they published coherent risk assessments, there would be far less resistance to the measures. The great thing about science is it gives us the tools to measure and to demonstrate that things work. It should be possible, in this day and age, to identify what is working and what isn't. 

I had an interesting conversation with someone who knows about such things over the weekend. I asked how they thought we'd have done if Jeremy Corbyn had won. They said that was an impossible question to answer, but if we'd dealt with the crisis as well as we could have reasonably expected, then we'd probably have had 15,000 deaths (which is the equivalent of a bad flu outbreak) and if we'd really screwed it up we'd probably have 60-70,000 by now. In his opinion, stringent measures at airports (something we still don't do), earlier lockdown, earlier cancellation of sports events, better management of infection protocols in care homes and a consistent message would have given us a death rate at the low end. His view is that we'd have been out of lockdown if we'd gone in earlier and had stringent enforcement. One thing he did say is that had Corbyn won and we'd had a death rate of 20,000, half the current rate, the press would have been in no way as forgiving and claimed it was criminal mismanagement. I don't disagree. We seem to have a government that can totally mismanage a crisis and get almost no criticism. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is deemed to have had a good covid crisis. I personally disagree. His measures have helped many businesses that don't need it and ignored manybusinesses, freelance workers and small businesses, that don't fit any of his models for help.

In short, the government needs to give business as clear a road map as possible and not keep lurching from policy to policy. So many of their schemes appear to have been designed on the back of a packet of cigarette packets. I speak to the public every day and people are baffled and have lost confidence in our leadership. I think people would be supportive, if they thought the measures would work, but the shambolic nature of the way they are being enacted gives no confidence at all. Whatever you may think of people who run businesses, whether you think they are deserving of help and support, the harsh fact is that without people running businesses, the economy will collapse and there will be no tax income to fund anything.

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