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By Stephen Parnaby OBE, Chair of the Humber LEP.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the Humber’s economy, with 98 per cent of businesses in our region classed as SMEs.

This is why it is so important to make sure small businesses are considered and supported as the coronavirus lockdown begins to ease and the economic impact of the drastic but essential measures continues to affect businesses.

The Humber is a 24/7 economy that UK Plc depends on. In our major industrial clusters – which include energy, petrochemicals and steel – and our ports and logistics sector, there has been no let-up in operations. The SME suppliers that support these critical activities have been working hard to help them keep the lights on and the flow of goods moving.

In these and many other sectors across the Humber, SMEs have swiftly adapted to ensure they can continue to operate – including by introducing homeworking. We are proud to have been able to help 147 SMEs with grants to purchase the ICT equipment and services required to enable this over the last two months.

However, not all SMEs have been able to continue their operations from home, nor will many of them be able to return to business in the short term – with those in retail, leisure and hospitality set for a July return – and then only if the Government sees the number of cases of COVID-19 remain at a stable level across the country. This is why we welcome the extension of the Government’s job retention scheme until October.

In the Humber, many of our businesses are in the manufacturing sector, who are being asked to return to work if it is safe to do so, but this again requires resources, PPE provisions where necessary, a switch to staggered shifts etc – with many, many considerations for each individual business to assess as they think about returning to production.

While the economy is highly important, health is of course the most important consideration for businesses – and all employees must be safe if they are to return to work or continue to work.
I know from the small businesses I have started and run how important it is to adapt and become resilient in the face of difficult changes. Times like these can bring out the best in business leaders as we innovate to move forward.

To weather this economic storm, many SMEs across the Humber have modified their ways of working in order to continue to operate. This includes the many small cafes, breweries, bakeries and restaurants who have begun mail order and delivery services.

It also includes those who have used their expertise and acumen to provide essential services for the fight against the virus – such as Advanced Plastics in Hull, who have partnered with the University of Hull to produce face shields for those on the front line, and NFire Labs at C4DI who have developed an innovative new respirator design.

Even our region’s events companies – some of the hardest hit by the lockdown and social distancing measures – have found new ways to operate. This includes Grimsby’s Red Herring Games, who have developed new mail order games and are looking at how online video services such as Zoom could be used to host their murder mystery events.

Going forward, the Humber LEP will continue to support SMEs through our Growth Hub and its #GrowMySME programmes, and will have SMEs in mind when developing our strategy for the region’s economic recovery.

In the meantime, we want to help any business who wishes to adapt to get all the resources available to them to do so, while we also want to make sure any businesses returning to work in the coming weeks and months do so safely and are operating in a way which is ‘COVID secure’.
One way we are doing this is through the ‘oneHumber’ week – a week of online events taking place between June 1st and June 5th focused on rebuilding and rethinking in the wake of the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.

These free events are open to all businesses in the Humber and will cover topics such as diversification, resilience, ongoing mental health, employee engagement, financial and HR support or continued growth into digital communications and e-commerce.

It is the latest initiative from the Humber Economic Resilience Group, made up of business membership and support organisations and local authorities throughout the Humber, which the Humber LEP convened to pool intelligence on the issues businesses are facing and co-ordinate our region’s response.

Though the lockdown has become the ‘new normal’, we know that it’s not going to be this way forever. By working hard together now to support our SMEs through this difficult period, we aim to ensure the Humber economy grows back stronger.