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Small business owners have called for more long-term support as they continue to battle the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
While restrictions are set to be eased as Wales returns to Alert Level Zero at the end of the month, small business owners in Caerphilly County Borough have said they want more to be done to protect their livelihoods going forward.
The Welsh Government, according to its own figures, has provided more than £2.5bn in funding to businesses since the start of the pandemic, which has helped to protect 160,000 jobs.
Business owners across Caerphilly County Borough turned to each other for support by setting up a Facebook group where they could voice concerns, share advice and help each other with grant applications, furlough and more.
The group has since transformed itself into the Welsh Business Alliance – a more formal support group for small business owners across Wales. It now has around 1,000 members.
The group was created by Sarah Bruton, owner of Captiva Spa in Caerphilly, who wants to see a long-term plan to help businesses recover from the last two years and boost town centres in the face of competition from online retailers and services.
Dr Bruton said: “Two years on with the pandemic and things are still not OK. We’re concerned about the future.
“Many of our group members are the businesses which have been hit hardest by Covid and struggle to sell online, such as hairdressers and beauty salons.”
“We’re not asking for grants, we want a plan to protect small businesses, rebuild our town centres and give better access to training. It’s about how we rebuild going forward and we want a voice in the decisions that are made.
“Without the right support, we will lose many small businesses, and with more people going online we need a plan for survival.
“Businesses are doing everything safely and within the rules but consumer confidence is down.”
Caerphilly’s Senedd Member, Hefin David, said he is in the process of arranging a meeting between the Welsh Business Alliance and the Welsh Government’s Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething.
Dr David said: “I’ve met with this group of businesses numerous times throughout the pandemic. We discussed the current issues last week and we are concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic on business, which will need further government support.
“We will continue to meet as a group to discuss these issues.”
Business has been “unpredictable”
Laura Astley has run PrimaVera Beauty Therapy, on High Street, Bargoed, for nine years. She said business had been “unpredictable” since the start of the pandemic.
Mrs Astley said: “We were always busy before Covid, but now we’re having daily cancellations.
“The diary seems full and you have to turn people away, but then those bookings cancel due to Covid. It can be frustrating, especially when you have overheads to pay.”
Before Covid, Mrs Astley employed staff at her salon, but was unable to keep them on after the pandemic hit.
“It’s hard for anyone who’s self-employed at the moment,” she said.
Mrs Astley, who is a mum-of-two, also said her work-life balance has been affected by the situation.
“I’m having to work longer with the cleansing between customers and trying to fit them in with a reduced capacity. I’m working more, but there’s less money coming in.”
Mrs Astley’s husband, Paul, also runs his own business – Paul’s Barbers – on Commercial Street, Nelson.
She said: “During lockdowns, we were both without a job. I’ve even considered a new career, but this is everything I know.
During the second lockdown, Mrs Astley took up a second job as a cleaner while she was unable to open her salon.
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Meanwhile, Clive D’Angelo-Smith, owner of Four Seasons Catering, has also had a tough time over the last two years.
Mr D’Angelo-Smith started his business in 2019. The business has its own restaurant at the Aber Hotel, in Abertridwr, and provides catering for events such as weddings.
When the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Mr D’Angelo-Smith was unable to claim government support because his business had not been established long enough to be eligible.
It wasn’t until the firebreak lockdown in Wales in October 2020 when he was eligible for support.
However, he says his business has been hit hard by recent restrictions imposed by the Welsh Government to counter the spread of the Omicron variant.
He said: “People aren’t going out because of Covid, so the restaurant is empty. On one weekend, we had a party of 35 booked in but they had to be split into tables of six with table service to follow the rules. This meant there was less room and it required more staff.
“These restrictions aren’t in place in England, so people are spending their money over there and not in Wales.
“Small businesses are under pressure. We’ve lost the last two Christmases due to Covid.”
He continued: “Normally, a busy December makes up for a quiet January, but in the last week of December, after restrictions came in, we lost 87% of bookings. This causes a knock-on effect for the rest of the year.
“We’ve had very few enquiries about events compared to this time last year – we’re down between 40% and 50%.
“It’s bleak at the moment and I’ve got a family to feed.”
He added: “The grants are a short-term fix but small businesses need investment for the long-term. The affects of Covid will be felt by small businesses for years to come.”
Businesses have “shouldered a huge responsibility”
Ben Francis, Policy Chair at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Wales, welcomed the news restrictions would be eased in Wales, but said businesses have “shouldered a huge responsibility” during the pandemic and have “consistently gone above and beyond to ensure staff and customers remain safe”.
Mr Francis continued: “While some sectors, such as hospitality, have borne the brunt of restrictions throughout the festive period, our data suggests Welsh businesses as a whole have been struggling.
“We know that Welsh business were indicating a decline in profits at the end of last year, which would create a concern about the growth outlook for Welsh businesses in 2022. Covid is just one of a number of issues challenging economic recovery over coming months.”
He added: “Businesses find themselves in a fragile position currently and buying local for goods and services will always be a way we, as consumers, can bolster small businesses and our communities.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said it is taking “a number of measures to further support the retail sector,” including a new retail strategy set to launch in March, which they said will “respond to the challenges the sector faces in the short, medium and long-term”.
The spokesperson also pointed to non-domestic rates relief and emergency support packages provided by the Welsh Government, as well as its Transforming Towns programme – which they said is providing £136m towards the recovery of town and city centres.
They added: “We also have ambitious plans to help people work smart and remotely in Wales. We are trialling a series of community-based remote working hubs, encouraging people to work closer to home and driving footfall back into town centres.”
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