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Two in five NI firms 'fear they will not reopen' amid coronavirus pandemic

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Tina McKenzie

Tina McKenzie

Tina McKenzie

Around two in five small and medium-sized firms here say they fear not opening again amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

According to a survey of around 239 firms, carried out by the Federation of Small Businesses, 57% have been forced to close since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

And of those that have closed, 37% will not reopen or are unsure whether they will ever open again.

It says more than a third (35%) have failed to make, or faced severe difficulties in making, commercial rent or mortgage repayments as a result of the pandemic’s economic impacts. A similar proportion (26%) have had to shelve product development plans.

Almost four in five have furloughed staff to aid the survival of their business, while almost three quarters of these businesses say the ability to partially furlough workers would benefit them.

“Many firms in Northern Ireland are concerned about the future viability of their businesses. Government, both at Stormont and Westminster, have brought forward considerable support for the small business community, from income support schemes, to cash grants, to help with accessing finance; But, of course, we are acutely aware that many have fallen through the gaps, and the support has been insufficient for some," FSB NI policy chair, Tina McKenzie said.

“It is now recognised that the risks associated with coronavirus will not disappear quickly, and it is therefore vital that support for business does not fall off a cliff-edge and is tailored to reflect conditions.

“For example, in the case of the Job Retention Scheme, there is clearly an awareness that workers cannot be furloughed indefinitely; However, government should consider a flexible approach, which can enable staff to be part-furloughed, allowing the business to get back on its feet gradually as the public health situation improves and commercial activity increases. This would enable the Job Retention Scheme to serve its original purpose - to avoid, rather than to delay, mass redundancies.

“Small businesses know that they can’t be sustained on the public purse forever but, in order to alleviate some of the pressure they are facing, it is crucial that we look ahead to the recovery phase. This will require businesses to be clearly advised on how to operate safely and supported to make the necessary adjustments. Doing this properly will enable the economy to recover more quickly and could avoid a prolonged, deep recession, which would have significant economic and social ramifications."