Business Survival in a Time of Pandemic?
Covid-19 has created unprecedented circumstances for our lifetime and many business owners are experiencing situations they have never had to consider before, on a scale that is almost beyond comprehension.
This article is written to help you address the commercial issues; it is not about the health side or protecting against coronavirus itself.
The latest government health advice to business can be found here.
A crucial first point is to say that we will get through this. Humans are resilient and we will, locally, nationally and globally, find ways to work together and get us through. It will be bad, but we will get through.
The prime minister and the governor of the Bank of England have said:
Stand by your employees and we will stand by you
The message is : don’t panic, don’t make snap decisions. Do not make people redundant. Don’t take out expensive loans, especially if your business was already distressed before this emergency.
At the time of writing (Thursday 19th March) the government has announced the following measures, almost all applicable to small and medium sized business only:
1 – Sick Pay
Up to two weeks SSP per eligible employee “off work because of Covid-19”, with no fit note from GP required. Note it doesn’t say “with Covid-19”.
2 – Business Rates
a) A holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses only
b) Small Business Rate Relief (SBBR) – for small businesses that pay little or no business rates
3 – Loans
a) Bank loans backed by the government, up to £5 million, interest free for the first six months. Called the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, full details still to be announced
b) Large firms Bank Of England Corporate Finance Facility – short term working capital facility, details to be announced
4 – Grants
a) A £25,000 grant for retail, hospitality and leisure in smaller premises
b) £10,000 for those covered by Small Business Rate Relief (SBBR). Local authorities will contact businesses.
5 – Tax
HMRC will consider Time To Pay arrangements on a case by case basis. This amounts to a cheap loan without adding another loan liability. They have a Covid-19 dedicated helpline on 0800 0159 559
More details are on the government website here.
In practice few of these measures give confidence to businesses facing a sales slump. This will feed through to inability to pay staff and suppliers. The cash effects are much greater than these measures can cover.
Loans are the most substantial support, but will need to be repaid. With sales well down and ongoing payroll and infrastructure commitments, businesses will haemorrhage cash and will need to aggressively cut costs. It’s an unprecedented situation and the government doesn’t seem to have thought it through. Loans and rate holidays are not a practical measure to cover lost sales.
Employees will find that sick pay does not go far.
Businesses will want to be paying staff on full pay while people are isolating at home. At some point the cash will run out for this. Short time working or negotiating 75% or lower pay, or placing staff on unpaid leave for a short period may be required to make the money last longer.
The government are going to have to contemplate backing payrolls via some form of universal basic income, or something similar, to get us through.
The chancellor has already announced that they are thinking along these lines, and we can expect a new announcement on Friday.
What can you do?
1 – Take advantage of the government support above
2 – Check your insurance. Note that standard business interruption insurance policies are dependent on damage to property and will exclude pandemics, so you are unlikely to be covered. But check.
3 – Cut costs right down wherever possible
4 – Consider “short-time” working or a short period of unpaid leave for staff, not redundancy – see latest announcement on 80% of salaries to be covered by the Government
5 – Make sure you have a three month or longer cash flow forecast
6 – Potentially hold off paying creditors and rent
7 – Use the HMRC Time-To-Pay option to hold off paying PAYE and NI
8 – Do not take out further loans if they do not appear commercially viable.
9 – If you are a cash rich business, there are likely to be opportunities to provide equity support to businesses already of merger or acquisition interest.
I have a couple of Excel cashflow templates available free, a weekly one covering 13 weeks, and a daily one, for those who need to keep a much closer timetable, covering 35 days. Contact me for copies.
We will be dependent on state action. At the time of writing a new announcement from the Chancellor is expected at any moment, announcing some sort of measures to protect jobs and incomes. There will probably be more detail on Monday.
One last thing.
The cases and deaths increase at an exponential rate (1.33x globally, 1.43x in the past few days for the UK). They may seem small now, but the increase is bigger and bigger every day. Deaths were up to 35 four days ago. Then 55, 71, 104 … it will be in the thousands in about a week, then the tens of thousands. We have to get that rate down from over 1.33 x to under 1.0x. Stay in. Avoid any unnecessary trips that involve mixing with other people. Do not socialise, even with family and friends. Wash your hands thoroughly.