As we enter the sixth week of lockdown, people’s thoughts have inevitably begun to turn to the question of how and when will we come out of it.
While most people have willingly accepted the sacrifices demanded of them to slow the spread of the virus and limit the number of casualties, there is huge concern about the economic cost of the Government’s measures, however necessary they seemed.
With a raft of indicators now showing that Britain is entering its steepest downturn for generations, even centuries, many people are wondering if they will have a job to go back to, and many business owners are worrying whether their companies can survive. Some will already know that the answer is no.
So how do we in the Cardiff Capital Region come out of the lockdown, and what challenges will we face as we try to rebuild our economy? And what opportunities does the recovery, when it comes, offer to build a more competitive, connected and resilient regional economy, better suited to face the demands of the 21st century?
In the weeks since the lockdown began the UK Government has put in place billions of pounds’ worth of support for businesses and the self-employed, and Welsh Government has added its own extra packages of help, in some cases plugging holes left by Westminster’s programmes. Cardiff Capital Region and the 10 local authorities within it have done what they can to help businesses access this support, and looked at what further help they can provide from their own resources.
Many businesses have been able to access this support, but others have fallen through the gaps, whether it be small home-based start-ups that do not benefit from business rates’ holidays, or businesses that can’t get government-backed loans. The UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme has been extended until the end of June, but it’s not clear what will happen then.
For everyone involved, in government or business, the priority is people’s health. But continued lockdown will take its toll on businesses and the public purse. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty expects social distancing measures to be in place for the rest of the year. Schools are unlikely to re-open before June at the earliest, which probably means September in practice.
Any emergence from the lockdown is likely to be gradual. It may be possible for non-essential shops to re-open before long, with appropriate social distancing measures in place. Other business activities where people can’t work from home, such as construction, could also be phased back in soon. Some housebuilders have indicated they plan to resume activity within the next couple of weeks.
Offices are likely to re-open later, as are leisure and hospitality businesses. Social activities that involve large gatherings, such as sports events or music festivals, are likely to be the last things to be permitted to start again.
However it happens – and with government worried about a second peak in infections, it could be months away rather than weeks – it will be important to keep supporting businesses as long as they need it. Government at all levels will have a role in providing the right environment for businesses that have struggled through the lockdown to grow back into financial health.
The pandemic has been a testing time for everybody, but it has also given us some inspiring examples of how businesses and individuals can mobilise in a time of crisis to help their neighbours and the community at large.
Many businesses will have had no choice but to close down and furlough their workers. But some have been able, because of the nature of what they do, to turn over their production lines to making the vital equipment that our health and care sectors so desperately need. From distilleries making sanitisers to manufacturers designing and producing personal protective equipment, it’s an example of peacetime mobilisation of resources that has no parallel.
Such businesses – and there are plenty in Cardiff Capital Region – have demonstrated an agility and creativity that will serve them well in the uncertain times ahead. That creative mindset will need to be shared more widely as we seek to revive and reconfigure our shocked economy.
Companies that can show that same creativity and agility will find opportunities, however bleak the short-term outlook might be. The retail, leisure, and hospitality sectors may have been thinned out, and office and commercial property markets weakened, but that will provide an opportunity for the reconstruction of our high streets on new, mixed use lines.
Businesses that have been able to supply their customers online will benefit from their loyalty when confidence picks up again. Key sectors such as medical diagnostics and cyber security will continue to grow.
The pandemic has also shown us the vulnerability of our overstretched supply chains, and the downside of offshoring. Globalisation will increasingly give way to localisation as we seek greater security of supply in more local suppliers. Here too there’s an opportunity for businesses in our region.
Cardiff Capital Region’s vision of a connected, competitive and resilient economy is still relevant, perhaps even more so. The economy will bounce back, and the recovery will give opportunities for new businesses to spring up and existing ones with the right approach to grow. The region has a chance, not just to repair the damage caused by the pandemic, but to restart in a new direction and with a new purpose.