To coin a royal phrase, 2020 proved to be a real ‘annus horribilis’ for the Shropshire business community.
Entire sectors saw their income virtually vanish overnight as the country went into lockdown. Customers disappeared, contracts were cancelled, expansion plans abandoned, and many employers were forced to go right back to the drawing board.
New words entered our vocabulary like ‘furlough’, ‘zoom meetings’, and of course ‘Covid-19’. The situation was so grave that the virus achieved the unthinkable, and knocked Brexit off the front pages!
But that was then, and this is now. January is traditionally a month when we look forward, not back, and I feel that’s more important than ever in 2021.
We can’t do anything about the car crash that was 2020 other than ensure we learn from the harsh and painful lessons it has taught us.
But whisper it quietly – there are now a few cautious reasons for us to be a little more cheerful, not least with a vaccine slowly starting to circulate around the county.
With it will hopefully come a renewed sense of confidence that there is a way through this, even if post-Covid life for many Shropshire businesses won’t look quite the same as it did before.
We also finally have a Brexit trade deal in place, which may not be to everyone’s liking, but is certainly better than the alternative – a no-deal scenario could have crippled many industries at a time when they would have been least equipped to cope.
Here at Shropshire Chamber, we are proud to have remained in business, for business, throughout this difficult period, delivering dozens of virtual training and networking sessions to help companies adapt to the new normal, and remain in touch with the outside world.
We dipped into our own reserves to provide free membership for businesses during the depths of the Covid lockdown, and ensure that our own staff would be on hand to help businesses when they needed it most.
And we have some very exciting plans for 2021. For example, we are resurrecting and modernising our ‘People Portal’ video CV service to help job seekers overcome current barriers to physical interviews.
Providing support on the skills agenda to ensure people can capitalise on opportunities that come forward is vital right now, and the team is working creatively to develop new events, membership offers and training programmes.
We are an official ‘gateway’ service for the Government’s £2 billion Kickstart programme, designed to get long-term unemployed young people into jobs.
Well over 500 opportunities have already been offered by Shropshire businesses under the Kickstart scheme – as usual, the business community has really stepped up.
We will also be launching a new ‘Chamber TV’ streaming service this year to provide companies with all the latest information on business support and funding opportunities.
Going forward, it’s very clear that we still have a number of bumps in the road, many of which we can’t influence. But the one thing we can certainly do is help to provide support.
We have been lobbying hard – and continue to do so – to ensure that the Government appreciates the impact of its Covid-19 restrictions.
Many Shropshire firms used up all their reserves just to survive 2020, and it would be unconscionable for further restrictions or closures to be announced without a more comprehensive package of support in place.
We understand that the Government must act on public health concerns, but it must also address the economic consequences of its actions too.
Will there be more help for firms being forced to shut their doors - and for those who have paid for stock which they now can’t sell?
What support will there be for companies whose cashflow projections have once again been thrown into chaos?
There are still many questions – and the best new year’s gift that Shropshire businesses can get right now is a promise that the Government understands their problems, will stand by them, and has a plan in place to help.