When I stood up to speak at Knowsley Chamber AGM in December 2019 I was addressing a room full of people brimming with confidence and positivity.
Chamber membership had soared by 25% during that year and so many of our members were looking forward with a feeling that 2020 was going to be a fabulous year. I was feeling very buoyant. Then, in March 2020, the world fell off a cliff. Or so it seemed.
Now here we are in January 2021. We are battered and bruised by the once-in-a-century economic tsunami the COVID-19 pandemic had delivered to our doorsteps. The steady roll-out of the vaccine gives us real hope of a return to some kind of normality this year. But businesses here in Knowsley have faced, and continue to face, huge challenges.
It is easy to call 2020 a write-off, a year to forget. And I don’t seek to diminish the suffering of individuals and businesses due to COVID-19. But there is another side to the story that needs to be told.
Since March I have been, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the resilience, ingenuity, resourcefulness, agility, adaptability, courageousness and generosity of our business community during this period of unprecedented upheaval. And that is what fills me with hope and confidence for 2021. There is no precedent for this. We are writing history.
When charities such as foodbanks appealed for our help in the early days of the epidemic, our businesses stepped up brilliantly. When we clapped for our carers I was also clapping for those who put their own troubles aside and reached out to people in dire need of assistance.
Supply chain challenges
For the first time in 2020 many of us realised what globalisation actually means. We now live in a truly interconnected world and that is what helped the virus to spread across the globe so quickly. And what began as a public health issue quickly became an economic one.
We saw how disruption to manufacturing and logistics in China, which was hit by COVID-19 first, quickly impacted on companies here in the UK. Just-in-time supply chains faced huge disruption. It forced companies, large and small, to review their strategies for continuity. And what has come from that is an awareness of the importance of developing local supply chains.
Entrepreneurs are nothing if not adaptable. We saw evidence of that agility, that capacity for rapid reaction, when the call went out from the Government for more PPE. In a wartime-style effort, businesses step into that gap. They innovated and they delivered.
But, of course, the other side of that is the companies that were ready to supply PPE but were unable to secure contracts. It has raised serious questions about the way the Government goes about procurement. And, over the coming months we will need to help smaller businesses be better prepared to bid for public contracts.
Similarly, now we have left the European Union, businesses need to carefully examine the robustness of their supply chains. They need to ask ‘where do our materials and our supplies come from… what alternatives are out there to ensure continuity?’.
2020 also saw an acceleration of digital innovation. Zoom, Webex, and Teams virtual meetings (“can you hear me?”, “You’re on mute!”) have become an everyday reality for those of us who have found ourselves working from home.
The pandemic has forced many companies to become more digitally aware. This has been scary for some who are wary of new technology. But for others, there has been an awakening of the commercial and productivity gains that can be won by becoming more digitally-focused.
Entrepreneurs are great at seizing opportunities and many have changed their business models and invested in digital technology. Some business owners may say ‘that doesn’t really affect me’. But in an increasingly connected world that viewpoint is becoming more difficult to sustain. If you are unsure, then come and talk to us at the chamber. We are, as always, here to help you.
I think one of the other major aspects of the pandemic has been the impact on our work-life balance. In recent years more and more women are taking up senior positions in the workplace and an increasing number are starting their own businesses. We have a strong Women in Business network here in Knowsley and so we are also well aware that women remain the primary carers in many families.
During the pandemic some women have found the flexibility offered by working from home has made a positive contribution to their work-life balance. But we have also seen that women have been among the biggest losers during the pandemic. Too many self-employed and owner-managers have slipped through the financial safety nets.
A call to action
I am optimistic for this New Year. It will be easier for some sectors such as logistics and life sciences, that have adapted well to the changes, and more challenging for sectors that have faced a more severe impact, such as leisure and hospitality.
Today, I am issuing a call to action. I want businesses to come to us and talk to us and work with us. I want them to know what a strong and collaborative business community we have here in Knowsley. The collaboration between the public and private sectors during this period has been critical to keeping our economy moving.
I am proud of the partnership we have forged with Knowsley Council and how together we have established an invaluable support network for businesses of all sizes and across all sectors. These are tough times and I believe that it is a collegiate approach that will help us get through this period, recover and prosper. We are better as Knowsley together.