July 19th is coming up fast. So-called “freedom day” is here, unburdening society from the constraints of the last sixteen months and opening up the gates to a wondrous new beginning. Except if you are a small business, that really is not the case at all.
The concept of freedom day, is in itself, misleading. Many freedoms are already available, most businesses are already back up and running, and of course as Boris Johnson stressed: the pandemic is in fact far from over. This is instead another stage in a complex path for small businesses, many of which have faced phenomenal challenges over the course of the Covid crisis. There is still no clear finish line for businesses, and we must at a very minimum acknowledge this: businesses still have a lot to navigate and will continue to need our support as a nation to weather the ongoing storm.
Far from freedom, what next Monday brings is additional burden for business: rather than the fallback of the law to support their approach to mask wearing, social distancing, or even Covid vaccine certification, small businesses now need to navigate these difficult decisions on their own with very little guidance.
It is, of course, a great step forward for hospitality and the night-time economy that they can open up fully again. These sectors have faced extreme hardship in the last year and a half and are stalwarts of our communities and culture, but it comes with a heavy dose of responsibility as businesses must find their own way through the minefield on how to safeguard their customers and their staff. With the weight of this on their shoulders, businesses have been given with one hand, but held back with the other.
The experience of opening up last summer gives some insight into the challenges ahead. As businesses came out of the first lockdown, the legal requirement for masks and distancing needed implementing and we saw widespread conflict arriving at small business doors.
Small, micro businesses, were forced to have difficult and often tense conversations with their customers and staff about implementing the law, which made for a challenging environment – now imagine that without the rule of law to refer to.
Small businesses tend to know their customers well. They are the heart of communities. They genuinely care. They may well want to keep mask requirements and distancing in place in the short term, in response to growing cases, to safeguard staff and customers. This might be because they know local vulnerable people, or perhaps because their staff have concerns. This is of course their right, and they should be allowed to do this. But without the support of the law, there is huge fear that this will be extremely hard to do without adversely impacting customer relationships. And small businesses need customers now more than ever to get back on their feet.
Expecting businesses to take this on, along with everything else we have asked of them over this ongoing crisis, puts them in an impossible situation.
We know that the recovery will be small business led, that the small businesses that make up our high streets, our supply chains, our innovation and our optimism will be the driving force behind jobs and economic growth. Recent research from PayPal’s Business of Change report shows 69 per cent of small businesses are feeling optimistic about the future with ambitious plans in place for the coming 12 months. Let’s not get in the way of this. Let’s instead look for ways we can support and encourage this.
These businesses need burdens taken away, not piled on. We need to make Freedom Day a reality for small businesses. Maybe not next week, but as we build back up from this period of grave uncertainty, let’s be certain about one thing: small businesses are the heart of our nation. We need to make sure we have their backs.