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To Trade Or Not To Trade?

On 23rd March Boris Johnson caused chaos for small business owners like us. in Boris’s statement, he made it sound as though no-one should go to work unless the work was essential and you were classed a key worker. At 8:10am the following morning, I received a text message – GOV.UK CORONAVIRUS ALERT New rules in force now : you must stay at home.

So what did this actually mean? We currently employ approximately 60 people over 3 packaging businesses. As an arguably non-essential internet business selling packaging, did that mean we should not be trading at all? We had already furloughed some staff and everyone who was able to work from home, were already established at their kitchen tables. Anyone who felt uncomfortable working was free to go home. But what about the printing staff and the despatch teams? The guidelines were too unclear.

Within minutes of Boris’s statement, our chat forums were inundated with employees saying they would not be coming to work, and that any business that suggested otherwise was going against the Government guidelines and seriously jeopardising the health of employees and their families.

My husband and I decided that the rules meant we should go to work as normal, as we could not work from home and we felt we had a strong moral obligation to try and keep the business going (yes, we work together and live together 24/7, I don't know how he does it!). Our reasoning at the time still stands :

1. We sell packaging to an extremely broad range of businesses including food suppliers and medical businesses

2. Provided we had measures in place to ensure the safety of our staff, we were doing more damage than good by closing.

Point 2 has caused widespread controversy. We went through the common sense basics – could we safely socially distance all staff still at work? Check. Did all staff have the option to go home if they felt at all uncomfortable? Check. Were any staff using public transport or shared transport to and from work? No. So we kept 6 staff in the warehouse (a 20,000ft area, so plenty of space) and 6 workers in the print rooms (2 print areas). I also agreed that I would personally clean communal areas such as toilets regularly to ensure high standards of hygiene and cleanliness.


And then the backlash started. From all sides. According to an ex-employee, we were selfish pigs who were putting lives before profit, and they hoped the hospitals ran out of beds if we caught Covid-19. Some staff were convinced we were operating illegally, others felt it was unfair for them to be at work when their families were all self isolating, and that we were being unreasonable and going against government guidelines. Oh Boris (or “Bojo” as he’s now known by the kids!) what did you do to the small business owner?

Don’t think for a second that I’m operating in a pink bubble (something I’m often accused of). I understand the risk of Corona, and having worked in Sierra Leone and Kenya, I am incredibly grateful for the NHS and the health service we have here. At no point do I think it acceptable to put lives at risk, be they key workers, NHS staff or our own employees and if I genuinely thought I was contributing to the epidemic, then I would, of course, cease trading immediately. I have a third of my right lung missing, so am very aware of any risks I am taking.

Unfortunately, social media made the situation for us all considerably worse. Yes, social media is a great tool for communication, but it can also be used for negative and factually incorrect data. Our local towns’ Facebook page was saying that people would be arrested if they went to work and were not classed as a ‘key worker’. Not only that, suddenly everyone became medical experts and judge and jury, casting aspersions on anyone who dared to suggest that they couldn’t work from home.

Add to the argument that some of the large internet businesses such as TK Maxx, Next and Dunelm chose to shut their doors to internet orders for the safety of their employees, the moral odds were stacking against us.

Only last week an employee said that lockdown should continue until we have a vaccine. We kindly pointed out that a vaccine could be a year away and that the economy would be in tatters. The employee’s response was that the government would carry on funding until that time. It had not occurred to this individual that the government may just run out of funding, if expected to prop up the entire economy for this length of time. Where is all this money going to come from?

A business to come back to

And it is for this reason that we decided to stay open. We felt a huge moral obligation to ensure that our businesses continued to exist both during and after Covid-19; an obligation to our staff, to our customers and to the wider economy. Packaging is an essential component for so many of our customers (let’s face it, people don’t buy bags and boxes for a hobby, unless they have a weird fetish) so if we no longer sell the packaging they currently use, this means they may not be able to sell their products and thus we are jeopardising their livelihood

Believe me, it would in many aspects have been much easier to close, furlough everyone and take a much needed rest (I would be earning more money because I have cancelled my salary until all staff are back at work). This is, in fact, what a few of our competitors have chosen to do and I understand why.

The negative backlash has added to exhausting task of trying to keep a scattered team together and motivated, while doing multiple jobs due to reduced staff numbers and actually it feels in many respects like a ‘no brainer’to take a sabbatical in the garden. Hhhmmmm, put like that, what am I doing??!!

The reality is, however, quite scary if we DON’T keep industry going as much as possible. According to the Financial Times (1), 25% of all businesses are currently shut. The ONS (2) state that 38% of small businesses are operating with turnover at a “substantially lower” level than previously / normal and 17% surveyed by the ONS said turnover was “slightly lower”.

The IMF stated this week that the UK is likely to face the deepest recession since the 1920’s. And here’s where it gets scary. Among the businesses still operating, it is estimated that 21% of staff have been furloughed. According to Begbies Traynor, the insolvency firm, over half a million small businesses are currently in ‘significant distress’ and it is well documented that the loans backed by the government are just not filtering through, largely because of the financial forecasts required to qualify, which many small businesses simply can’t provide at the moment. According to the BBC News last week, of 300,000 applications for small business loans, less than 2% have been granted to date.

If the experts are comparing this to the last depression, then we’re in for a tough time. Unemployment, according to Wikipedia (5), rose up to 70% in some areas, and reached 30% in the whole of Glasgow. Exports fell by 50%, taxes went up from 22.5% to 25%, dole was cut by 10% and all public sector workers had an enforced pay cut of 10%. The impact for many meant starvation, with huge queues at Soup Kitchens Can the average UK family afford these austerity measures? The money the government is offering as bailouts has to come from somewhere. According the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (3), 22% of all UK households were classed as in poverty prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Foodbanks are already relied on by one in 50 households (or 2% of the population)(4) so we are likely to be looking at poverty levels not experienced in the UK for over 100 years. If I can stop 60 people (and their families) from experiencing this level of hardship then surely we have done a good thing? According to my basic calculations, if 21% of private sector workers are furloughed for 6 weeks, this equates to over £23.4bn cost not including grants, loans and other measures promised by the UK Government.

As a small business, we possibly contribute more to the economy than many global corporations avoiding UK tax. Our ‘tiny’ business pays over £300k per annum in various taxes and collects over £300k per annum in VAT. It is all the small businesses like ours that keeps the UK economy afloat. In very simple terms, by generating in excess of £600k in taxes, we have potentially funded state pension for 100 people for one year. Yes, I know that’s not the reality – as I said, a simplistic view!

The mental health cost

And then there’s the mental impact. The main focus to date of the UK Government to date has been the physical health of the population, but just as important is the mental health as the two go hand in hand. Depression and anxiety are already rife in the UK. According to mental health charity Mind (6) 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. This is without a pandemic or economic crisis. Without the routine of going to work and adding value to society, many people are left feeling ‘worthless’ or without purpose. Add to that financial worries, confined spaces and a restrictive lifestyle (many experts are estimating that social distancing rules will be in place for many months to come) and we are headed for a perfect storm of emotional issues, depression and anxiety.

We know from the media, that within 4 weeks of lockdown the level of calls to mental health charities and hotlines has risen significantly (7) due to isolation and stress and the level of domestic violence has risen so much the Government have had to relax the rules allowing individuals to visit a friend or relative if they are in crisis at home. According to the ONS, nearly half of all adults are currently suffering from high levels of anxiety, with the biggest issue being anxiety about the future.

By keeping our small business going, we are ensuring our employees still have purpose and a stable income, creating less stress. We are providing a motivated team environment, with a common purpose of keeping our ‘tiny’ business afloat, so that as restrictions are lifted everyone has a thriving business to return to.

To date (and I’m keeping everything crossed) the only illness we have had at work was a flu epidemic before the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, where about one fifth of our work force on one site were ill in February at the same time (could have been Covid-19 as we all had high temperatures and bad coughs, but there was no way of knowing or testing). Noone with underlying health conditions is working at our premises, and if anyone has so much as a sniffle, they are not allowed to come to work.

Have our sales been affected by Covid-19? Sure. We are down about 13% compared to last year, but we are one of the very lucky businesses in that we are able to carry on trading, with a workforce on site who choose to be here, because they believe it is the right thing for them to work, as well as for the greater good. Our staff on site believe (rightly so) that they are keeping the cogs turning and therefore keeping all the staff working from home in work.

So that’s my argument. Is it the right decision? Should we continue to trade unless we are told to close, or are the health risks too high for our dedicated workers? I’ll let you decide.…….


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