As the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis continues, merchant firms of all sizes find themselves confronting what are surely the most challenging circumstances they have ever faced. With the situation continuing to move at great pace, and the timeframe for ending the lockdown unclear, PBM has collated a number of the key information sources for readers to access the most up-to-date data and business support.
Official advice and business support
The government has unveiled (and regularly updated) a range of measures to help businesses, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (to ‘furlough’ employees), the Business Interruption Loan Scheme, a Corporate Finance Facility, Grants for qualifying firms, a Business Rates Holiday and a SSP rebate.
The CJRS is being administered through HMRC for PAYE employees, and more than 140,000 firms utilised the scheme’s web portal on its first day of operation.
For a central source of information on the various Government initiatives please visit www.businesssupport.gov.uk/coronavirus-business-support
For an excellent commentary on the CJRS from law firm Wright Hassall on the PBM website, click here:
Merchant sector and BMF
Following an initial lack of clarity when the lockdown measures were first announced, it was established reasonably quickly that merchants could remain open for business — provided operations were carried out whilst observing the relevant public health guidance. Many merchants nonetheless elected to temporarily close their doors, citing the paramount need to ‘protect the safety and welfare of staff and customers’.
Following discussions with BEIS, BMF CEO John Newcomb confirmed that for those merchants remaining open, trading “should be through online and delivery services, but those who need to maintain depot service are able to do so providing they observe PHE guidance including social distancing, cleaning and hygiene, staff welfare and all other means to minimise the risks of transmitting coronavirus.”
On its comprehensive coronavirus hub, the BMF has continually updated its guidance to merchants to reflect the evolving situation. This includes details of enhanced online training courses, information on its ‘virtual’ forums and meetings, in addition to revised Branch Operating Guidelines. The website also details a constantly monitored summary of the current opening policies of its member merchants, enabling other businesses to measure their own operating decisions.
Visit BMF hub via https://www.bmf.org.uk/BMF/Information_Centre/COVID-19-bulletins.aspx
Working in tandem with the BMF and other trade bodies, the Construction Products Association is also outlining the current status of manufacturers and suppliers to the merchant sector, detailing how product availability may be impacted by “reductions or closures in production, distribution, and stocks.”
Beyond this, a section on the CPA website contains a host of useful links and resources relating to the coronavirus impact and can be accessed via https://www.constructionproducts.org.uk/our-priorities/coronavirus/
Trade bodies such as the Federation of Master Builders and the National Federation of Builders have continued to illustrate the stark realities facing their membership ranks, comprised predominantly of SME contractors and housebuilders. Speaking in mid-April, FMB Chief Executive Brian Berry reflected on the legacy of the 2008-09 financial crash when around half a million workers were estimated to have left the industry.
And even though the Government has broadly clarified that sites could be kept open, Brian said: “In just the first month of this outbreak, construction output has fallen at the fastest rate since the financial crisis a decade ago. It reflects what we have been hearing form our members, 60% of whom have had to stop the majority of their work, to protect their workforce and their clients during the coronavirus outbreak.”
A comprehensive survey of firms in the plumbing & heating sector conducted by Eureka Research drew a response from more than 1,100 small business owners and sole traders. Describing the concerns relating to “immediate sources of cashflow and being able to pay themselves and staff in the short term”, it estimated that the sector is “currently operating at about 13% of what it would in normal circumstances, with considerable work being postponed even if it could be carried out within official guidelines.”
Read the full survey via https://www.eurekaresearch.co.uk/covid19report
We have carried a number of articles online which outline some of the practical steps merchants can consider during the coronavirus outbreak. These have covered in-branch safety measures such as installing safety screens and signage or facilitating ‘safe’ collections and deliveries, in addition to other business considerations such as FLT battery checks and effective CCTV monitoring for shuttered premises.
Furthermore, many suppliers and trade organisations have significantly ramped up their online training provision — and this is something which even be undertaken by furloughed employees.
With the branch environment obviously an area of concern in terms of maintaining the safety of staff and customers, there has been a significant increase in online trading and eCommonSense, one of the leading companies in this area, says that it has even accelerated the launch of a number of its clients’ ecommerce-enabled websites.
Founder and MD Andy Scothern said: “If you don’t have a fully optimised online channel, you will be at a disadvantage both during this current crisis and also once it ends. Merchants are now recognising that an industry-leading website will be one of the most critical weapons in their arsenal against the current COVID-19 pandemic.”
Health & Well-being
The latest information from the NHS can be accessed at www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/
As health is a devolved issue, more specific guidance is available via:
Public Health England: gov.uk/phe
Health Protection Scotland: www.hps.scot.nhs.uk
Public Health Wales: phw.nhs.wales
Public Health Agency (NI): publichealth.hscni.net
We are well aware that this is also a crisis that will have a particular impact on mental health and general well-being. Help is available from the BMF’s official charity partners, mentalhealth-uk.org and www.samaritans.org whilst further support for those working in the industry can be found via www.rainydaytrust.org.uk and www.lighthouseclub.org which can each provide financial as well as emotional care.