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Budget should launch 'hardship fund' for UK firms hit by coronavirus

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
British Chambers of Commerce director-general Adam Marshall. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The UK government should announce a ‘hardship fund’ in the Budget for any small and medium-sized firms hit by the coronavirus, according to a senior business leader.

Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), has written to new chancellor Rishi Sunak urging him to roll out measures to support companies on 11 March, Yahoo Finance UK can reveal.

The government warned earlier this week one in five UK employees could be left absent from work if the outbreak escalates. Falling demand and travel restrictions as well as Chinese supply chain troubles have already hit many firms hard, including the collapsed airline Flybe.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance UK at the BCC’s annual conference in London on Thursday, Marshall said he had seen “anecdotal” stories of member firms struggling to get hold of certain consumer goods, plastic supplies for manufacturing and shipping containers to move goods. Tourism firms have seen cancelled bookings and lower demand.

Read more: UK workers to get three more days sick pay over outbreak

He said some firms may see a more “direct impact” in the coming weeks, and a business rate “holiday” or one-year discount could help them absorb extra costs.

The government should also ensure firms pay clients on time to prevent cashflow troubles, and scale up current ‘time to pay’ tax support by HMRC, according to the BCC.

A business hardship fund could include support for costs around emergency remote working, while the government could also help with wages at any firms that see public contracts curbed over the virus.

The BCC also argues firms who have seen credit pulled or struggle to secure loans if the virus curbs lenders’ appetite for risk deserve support under the government’s enterprise finance guarantee scheme.

Marshall told Yahoo Finance UK the government should “back business wholeheartedly” in the Budget amid not only the outbreak but also fresh trade uncertainty linked to Brexit. He had warned in his speech it was a “simple fact” that moving goods, hiring staff and following official rules would all cost firms more in years to come.

He said the BCC “respect” the fact ministers had made political choices on the UK’s EU relationship and immigration reforms. But he hit out at the portrayal of worried firms as anti-Brexit “saboteurs, throwing their wooden clogs into the machine of progress.”

Firms were right to warn higher costs will be borne by “consumers and our communities” as well as firms, Marshall said, and he urged ministers to give companies time to prepare for changes and work with them on detail.

Marshall also told a crowd of local business leaders from across the country it was not enough to leave firms to “take it on the chin,” after the government finally acknowledged increase costs earlier this year. Infrastructure from road repairs to Heathrow expansion, green investment incentives, lower business rates and export support could all ease the burden on business, he said.

Read more: Flybe CEO tells staff of ‘deep feeling of sorrow’ over collapse of airline

The chancellor sent a statement to organisers apologising for not attending amid his Budget preparations and praising British business, which was read out to guests.

Sunak had also released a statement on the coronavirus on Monday, promising “firm action” to support firms, the public and government services. “We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed.”

The Treasury has not responded to Yahoo Finance UK with a comment by the time of publication.