Embracing our changing world
Adapting and supporting businesses during COVID-19; responding to new figures on the pandemic’s significant impact; reminding the Government of its responsibility to the region; and a continuing commitment to diversity
James Ramsbotham CBE
The past few months since the last issue of CONTACT have been the most challenging of many of our lifetimes and there is now heartfelt relief we are potentially coming through the other side of this pandemic.
Throughout our 200-year history, we have had to adapt to new circumstances as our members’ needs changed, but the speed of the essential shift in our services has been unprecedented.
Within days of lockdown our team worked tirelessly to help members who urgently needed PPE or other support, to be able to deliver services in their communities.
There has been much use of the word ‘pivot’ for businesses alterations during COVID-19.
I think our shift at the Chamber was probably better described as a whole 360-degree turn, at great speed, than a relatively simple pivot!
I’m delighted to say the hard work in connecting our members with those in need was successful and I thank each and every one of you who contributed to that work.
It was most appreciated by the NHS, care sector and everyone on the frontline here in the North East.
As well as this practical help, we also campaigned to ensure businesses were able to get the much-needed financial support from Government and iron out several anomalies along the way.
We also had a £150,000 relief fund sanctioned by our Chamber Board to ensure businesses who needed financial support were able to access it and remain part of our great organisation.
The fund was a very appropriate opportunity to repay and recognise the long-standing loyalty of so many of you, our members.
To help employers digest the mountain of information on measures during this crisis, we prepared daily digests of the key points to ensure everyone knew, at each turn, what finance was available and how to access it.
We are extremely fortunate to have close links around the world through the British Chambers of Commerce network. As part of moving forward post COVID-19, we arranged webinars from other countries whose circumstances are further ahead of the UK’s situation.
Our members have been able to hear first-hand accounts from colleagues in Hong Kong, Beijing, South Korea, Spain, Germany and Belgium.
They were very candid and open about what measures had worked and how their businesses got back on their feet.
One of the most illuminating examples came from Dr Herbert Grebenc, a senior leader for BMW in Germany, who stressed how important communication was for them, to ensure their employees felt safe at work.
These webinars focused on how to recover after COVID-19 and they couldn’t have been timelier, with our latest worrying economic survey statistics.
These results, the largest independent North East business survey, revealed results for the second quarter of the year, which were as negative as employers had feared, due to COVID-19.
Sales for the manufacturing and service sectors fell to record lows of -54 per cent and -63 per cent, respectively, far worse figures than those reported during 2009’s financial crash.
Cash flow was also at an unprecedented negative level of -48.2 per cent.
These results show the speed with which this crisis has ripped through our businesses. It is a situation compounded by our pre- existing problems of above average levels of unemployment and economic inequality.
In the Chancellor’s Summer Statement, we had called for an economic intervention that recognised these regional disparities could be entrenched if they were not tackled urgently.
Rishi Sunak’s speech contained a number of measures that will provide short-term boosts to parts of our economy, but there was a significant lack of detail when it comes to long-term action to ‘level up’ regions such as ours.
We were pleased, however, to hear him acknowledge how hard the impact of the pandemic has been, and will continue to be, on young people in the early stages of their working lives. Our hope is that the measures announced are effective in enabling them to be prepared for good quality jobs.
The £1,000 for people who have been furloughed and due to return to work will help some firms, but we are concerned this level of funding will be insufficient to make a real difference to a business in financial difficulty.
Getting people spending in our great hospitality and leisure businesses is
also essential. This sector remains so vulnerable to further lockdowns and we would like to see specific support to help them become as safe and resilient as possible.
If we are going to recover as a country, we need to give people reassurance the pandemic is under control and that they can go back out into the world with confidence their well-being is safe. This policy then needs to link with real benefits that make a difference to people’s pockets no matter their income.
As well as Government support, we need to be proactive and have been in close discussions with our members about how we also tackle our recovery effectively.
These ideas are now shaping the direction of our work going forward. At the heart of our activities and services will be fairness, community, opportunity and sustainability.
All of which leads me to the issue of diversity.
In the Chamber we have long- championed women in business with our Inspiring Females programme of events. This work around diversity is now being broadened to ensure we are supportive of our BAME community.
We believe it is extremely important we take this step in support of ‘Black Lives Matter’, while acknowledging our own history includes a president, John G Clarke, who inherited a Jamaican plantation before he stepped down.
At this time, in the early 1800s, our members reflected the region, as we do now.
Council minutes from the time show there were also a significant number of abolitionists on the Chamber Council who, I’m proud to say, campaigned strongly and successfully against slavery. Today, while delivering our services and campaigns under these guiding principles, we will continue to actively promote the importance of flexible working and mental health well-being.
This has been the cause at the heart of our president Lesley Moody’s work on our behalf, building on our former president John McCabe’s tremendous mental health advocacy.
Little did we know when Lesley suggested promoting flexible working that, half-way through her term of office, the whole country would have to embrace it to a previously unimagined extent.
The findings of a survey into business owners’ mental health by chair of the Chamber’s Sunderland area Natasha McDonough, of MMC, are going to be so useful for everyone both now and post- COVID-19.
One of the key points of the results was the need for peer-to-peer support for employers and we will be exploring how to help facilitate this for our members.
Going forward we know we have challenges as a region, but we are very well placed to embrace this changed world.
Together we grow stronger – as individuals who can get through this and as a business community supporting each other.