Until the Coronavirus lockdown I had spent my entire five years as an MP talking about unemployment going in one direction: down. The phrase ‘record employment’ was featured in almost every speech I gave as an MP, a proud hallmark of a Government that had stepped up to the mark in the wake of an economic crash caused not by a virus but by the old man-made ill of excessive debt. At general election hustings last December I was even able to boast the lowest level of unemployment since I was born in 1974.
And so I am profoundly conscious of how fundamentally the trend has turned. Shutting down our economy for months on end was justifiable for health reasons, but the inevitable economic cost is now rearing its head. We must do everything possible to support businesses so that they can retain staff rather than laying them off.
As the Chancellor’s Parliamentary aide in the Commons I have had a bird’s eye view of the huge effort put in by HM Treasury to support business and employment during lockdown. I know we could always do more but I cannot emphasise enough how hard the department, its officials and its Ministers have worked to deliver unprecedented interventions through grants, loans and other measures that boost our wealth creators.
Out and about in Hadleigh on Friday, visiting shops and market traders, I met a number of business owners who were sincerely grateful for the support they had received. I even met one who had not been eligible for initial grant support but had benefitted when we gave more discretion to Babergh about how they could administer the funding.
Of course, we cannot support every business or save every job. I am aware that for one technical reason or another some have not received the support they would have expected. Above all, even where businesses have received grants or Bounce Back Loans, as a small business owner myself by background I know this is not enough. Yes, businesses can be publicly supported for a short period. However, ultimately, if businesses are to keep trading they need just that: trade. That means footfall; that means custom; and that means you and I, getting out and supporting local firms.
This is one reason the Chancellor last week announced ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ vouchers, offering discounted meals if we do our bit by doing the sort of thing we used to enjoy before lockdown – popping to our local pub, café or restaurant for a meal. I would encourage people to make the most of these offers, but naturally, to do so sensibly and in a way that complies with public health guidance.
It can be done. On the 4th July, the first day when pubs were able to reopen, I had my haircut in a local salon after queueing from 8am and in the evening visited my village pub. The combination of a pint and less weight on the mind was a great relief, after all the weeks of lockdown. But what impressed me was how both businesses had made such an effort to implement the new rules. Hairdressing staff had visors; the pub was laid out in zones. This is the new reality, and it takes a lot of hard work.
So I will sound like a stuck record in the weeks ahead but must repeat: that effort needs to be matched by each of us. ‘Normal’ times have not returned but ‘hard’ lockdown is over, and we can still enjoy ourselves in a way that lifts our mood and – most importantly - protects jobs.
Article published in the Suffolk Free Press.