Coronavirus: ‘Our small businesses may go, just like that’
Businesses reeling from loss of customers are left crying out for help – as PM is blasted over his handling of crisis
19 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Ultimate Craft proprietors Jaymini Patel and Firoz Virani
SMALL businesses have called for more help from the government to stay afloat after people were told to stay indoors to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £350billion package for those affected by isolation measures, but owners of pubs, clubs, restaurants and shops said they need faster action as they face a sudden cashflow crisis.
Critics of the government said they want grants rather than loans, as small businesses do not want to take on more debt. And many businesses in Camden Town are fractionally over a rates threshold, meaning they may not be entitled to the most favourable offers. One major point of controversy is prime minister Boris Johnson’s advice not to go to pubs or eat out, but without stating it officially – a stance which could affect insurance claims and has left some soldiering on with hardly any customers and others shutting voluntarily.
Publican Paul Davies runs three well-known Kentish Town pubs – The Pineapple on Leverton Street, The Lady Hamilton on Kentish Town Road, and Tapping The Admiral on Castle Road – and employs 40 staff.
“There are professional ways of doing things,” he said. “For Boris Johnson to grandstand and make such a statement without any context or warning is unbelievable. “We all knew this was a possibility and we are all trying to pull together, but to tell people not to go to pubs without ordering them to close was beyond irresponsible. He should have liaised with the industry, spoke to us 10 days, five days, even two days ago, so we had a chance to make plans. “I wish Johnson had kept his mouth shut – or issued a lengthy, professional statement.”
Mr Davies said pubs would then have been able to run down perishable stocks, such as real ales. With 40 staff to consider, he said more notice would have allowed them to work out a plan to ensure everyone’s job could be made safe.
Mr Davies said: “Nothing has been put in place for us to support our staff. “Our main concern is the people who we employ – how we can help them. “We have to hold on to them, and give them a wage so they can survive. But there will be other things we just have to cut, like laying off our cleaning company for now, which means they will lose income. And there are other pubs much worse off than we are. It’s heartbreaking.”
He added: “Real Ale has a limited shelf life and we have tens of thousands of pounds worth of stock. No insurance is paying out, each is saying, ‘no, sorry, you’re not covered for coronavirus’ – it’s absurd. They have been allowed to wriggle out of it when they’ve been reaping in the good money all these years.“Insurance companies have to face the music, it can’t all be borne by the taxpayer. And pubs are not a special case, this is happening to businesses across the borough.”
Other businesses told a similar story. Ultimate Craft, a haberdashery, arts and crafts store on Camden High Street, is normally a hive of activity but yesterday (Wednesday) at 5.30pm, a time when hobbyists, knitters and sewing buffs usually pop in for supplies on their way home from work, it was empty.
Proprietors Jaymini Patel and Firoz Virani, who opened the business nearly five years ago, said trade this week was running at about 30 per cent of usual levels.
Mr Virani said: “We can perhaps get through one more week like this and then we will have to close, no doubt about it. We hope our landlord will help us by suspending rent payments but we just do not know – we will be looking into that. We are also not sure what the terms would be if we looked for a business loan, or if we qualify. And this is happening up and down high streets everywhere. It is very worrying. We have poured everything into our shop, really loved working here, got to know our customers – and it might go, just like that.”
Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer said: “The coronavirus is going to have a huge impact on Camden. What the government must now do is to provide certainty to residents, businesses and the community that they will take all necessary steps to support the local economy. Anything less will be a failure of national leadership and will let down one of Britain’s cultural and economic hubs.”
Chancellor Mr Sunak said in a press briefing this week: “I want to reassure every British citizen this government will give you all the tools you need to get through this. That means any business who needs access to cash to pay their rent, their salaries, suppliers or purchase stock will be able to access a government-backed loan or credit on attractive terms.” He said business owners should stop before cutting pay or laying off staff and talk to the government.
He added: “If demand is greater than the initial £330bn for loans I’m making available today, I will go further and provide as much capacity as required. “I said ‘whatever it takes’, and I meant it.”
Mr Johnson has not ruled out more stringent measures to limit social contact, with speculation swirling that London could face its own lockdown very soon. Camden Market said it will remain open until the government orders closures.
Owners Labtech said they would not charge stallholders any rent for the forseeable future. “Camden Market will be suspending all rents until further notice,” a spokesman said. “Until the government indicates we need to close the market, we will remain open and trading for those who want to trade.”
Labtech has only just launched its new container complex at the new Buck Street Market.
Stallholders across the markets had mixed feelings this week.
The new Buck Street Market
“Everyone is fearful of picking something up,” one said. “The government should’ve insisted all businesses like ours close immediately – and help us get through this. “Surely they are asking us to socially isolate? Working on a market stall in the middle of Camden Town doesn’t sound like social isolation to me.”
But Labtech said: “In these times of uncertainty, it is more important than ever to support the small, independent businesses that make Camden Market great. We are working with our traders to encourage social distancing practices, including click and collect, food delivery and strict hygiene regimes that include regularly washing hands, and following the government guidelines for food preparation and isolating staff that feel unwell.”