Pat Doody, Chair of the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership, marks 100 days of lockdown as businesses cautiously begin to reopen and the economy stirs back into life.
On Wednesday the UK has been in lockdown for 100 days. Businesses have closed their doors, workers have stayed at home, schools have remained quiet. There is no doubt that as the country begins to emerge from lockdown our economy and our people are facing an unprecedented challenge. So I want to look at what we are doing here in Greater Lincolnshire and find cautious grounds for optimism.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents the biggest economic crisis since the Second World War. At the outset the LEP’s focus was ‘response’, turning our efforts to the immediate support of our crucial diverse business community; 100 days later we have moved into the ‘recovery’ phase. While much of our economic planning pre-pandemic remains relevant, it’s clear that we must adjust our focus significantly if we are to recover fully; we are working hard to gather intelligence in order to structure the interventions necessary for change. Draft plans already in place for this.
We have been active in two key areas since the start of lockdown: first, directing increased resources to support businesses through our Business Lincolnshire Growth Hub with a dedicated helpline, additional one-to-one advisors, and a strong and relevant online presence; and second, supporting our critically important food sector and protecting national food security through dialogue with the sector and the development of some key campaigns including DEFRA’s Pick for Britain and the #StudentLandArmy. At the same time we have been influencing the government to adapt policy and target investment where it has the greatest impact.
But we cannot hide from the fact that the pandemic and the measures to overcome it have taken a toll on our economy. Data for April shows that UK GDP fell by over 10% on the previous quarter – the largest fall the UK has ever seen. The result of this is that the economy was 25% smaller in April than it was in February. In Greater Lincolnshire in May, 6.1% of over 16s were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance – an increase of 114% on pre-virus levels. However, both the rate of claimants and the increase are currently less severe in Greater Lincolnshire than in the rest of England.
The government moved quickly to address the challenges faced by businesses, and LEPs and local councils have been closely involved in this national effort. Over £222 million has been paid to our Greater Lincolnshire business community across 19,000 businesses via the Small Business Grant Fund and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund. There is also a Discretional Fund being administered by our local authorities to reach businesses which were not eligible for the small business and hospitality funds.
Additionally, around 118,000 employees in Greater Lincolnshire (25% of the total workforce) have been or are being supported by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough). It is estimated that over £240 million of furlough support has been dispensed locally. And over 34,000 self-employed people in Greater Lincolnshire have also been supported via the Self Employment Support Scheme.
These measures do not cover everyone and no doubt there is further economic pain to come, but there are also signs of cautious optimism. During the lockdown businesses have been forced to adapt and think differently, and this in turn has brought forward in a matter of months new and innovative working practices that would otherwise have taken several years to gain momentum.
Setting an excellent example are the distillers of Lincolnshire such as Bottomley Distillers, Unconventional Distillery and The Lincoln Distillery which have switched production from gin to hand sanitiser gel. Lincoln tech start-up Tended has launched a smart wearable solution to help maintain social distancing at work, and Grantham firm Angel Med has designed and manufactured a new-concept face mask for personal use. These businesses embody the spirit of innovation and adaptation which we will need in the future.
The economic outlook for Greater Lincolnshire, like that of the rest of the UK, is unclear. The extent to which the pandemic has impacted our local economy is yet to be fully assessed. However, our economy has traditionally proven resilient to the initial consequences of economic shocks. Our relatively traditional industry mix of farming, engineering and tourism, coupled with a disproportionately large base of small enterprises across a dispersed geography, has resulted in an economy that remains resilient in times of crisis – although particular challenges do still remain in those sectors. Ours is also an economy that tends to lag behind the recovery curve; in some parts of Greater Lincolnshire, the economy has only recently returned to pre-2008 levels. It is possible that COVID-19 could yet disproportionally impact Greater Lincolnshire in an adverse way.
There are some other glimmers of light: our Business Lincolnshire Growth Hub is reporting continued interest in obtaining funding for investment for large capital, and there appears to be an uptick in export activity for some businesses as foreign import markets open up.
Despite the considerable challenges we face, I have seen amazing resilience and a willingness to adapt amongst our businesses, and I am confident that together, with the right interventions and investment, we can overcome this once-in-a-lifetime challenge and create new opportunities for the future.