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Coronavirus: Fears for small businesses if pandemic causes slump

Most businesses in the area are paying rates that are above the £51,000 threshold for help set by the government

13 March, 2020 — By Tom Foot and Natasha Drakakis

Simon Pitkeathley

SMALL businesses fear a sudden slump in trade with coronavirus panic expected to hit the high street hard.

With the virus being officially branded as a pandemic, there are concerns that footfall will drop while businesses also struggle with staff shortages due to the illness spreading.

Simon Pitkeathley, chief executive of the business group Camden Town Unlimited, said: “People working from home or offices is not all that difficult to manage. But a drop in trade coming into the high street would be. The businesses we worry about are the ones with [high] fixed overheads and low cash reserves. If your rent is due and you have standard business rates, rents, and permanent staff – you cannot easily adjust.”

He added: “If turnover is going down and you haven’t got reserves, you are going to be very worried. Those are the ones that will immediately get hit. Businesses with overheads that are flexible will be able to hunker down and take the hit.”

Mr Pitkeathley said he was concerned about the impact on Camden High Street if shopper numbers fall considerably.

And the majority of the firms in Camden High Street are unlikely to benefit from a rates holiday announced by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak in his first budget speech yesterday (Wednesday). Most businesses in the area are paying rates that are above the £51,000 threshold for help set by the government.

The measures were supposed to help smaller firms including benefit museums, art galleries, theatres, caravan parks, gyms, small hotels, sports clubs and nightclubs.

Mr Pitkeathley said: “All help is very welcome and the Chancellor seems to be taking matters seriously and we welcome this. But if you look at Camden High Street, none of the big pubs you think of, for example, would have a rateable value at that level to benefit.”

In Camden Town, a travel agent said he was concerned about the impact from coronavirus on his business after 60 years in Camden Town.

John Warrington, who runs Janaway Travel in Arlington Road, said panic over the virus was causing unnecessary cancellations and urged holiday­makers not to scrap their travel plans.

Mr Warrington said: “We’ve been in Camden Town since 1960, which means we’re 60 years old this year. We’ve kept going through all sorts of incredible things, but this is our first viral outbreak which has been noticeably hitting this particular industry that we’re in. We have had quite a few people cancelling – they have been older people and all of them have lost money as a result. At the moment, there is no reason not to go on holiday.”

In Hampstead, Camilla Del Maestro, who runs a jewellery store in Heath Street, said she had already noticed a drop in footfall around the high street, and a general sense of anxiety among shoppers. Imposing signs have gone up in the window of one high street shop warning shoppers not to come in if they have been to Italy or countries in the Far East.

Trade is up on some products such as toilet roll and hand gels but there are concerns that some traders may be taking advantage.

An elderly man in his 80s told the New Journal he had been charged £12.50 for a 50ml hand sanitiser gel at a pharmacist in Camden Town. A similar bottle of gel costs 69p at Lidl. Tony Marsella, who lives in the Oldfield Estate, Primrose Hill, said he felt like had been “ripped off” and warned others to be vigilant.

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