10 Questions: Jonathan Walker

May 1, 2020

Jonathan Walker is assistant director – policy at the North East England Chamber of Commerce. Here, he reveals how the business organisation has adapted to the coronavirus outbreak and the measures it has implemented to continue supporting its membership

The North East England Chamber of Commerce is the region’s largest member organisation, representing around 3000 businesses. During this unprecedented time, how are your supporting your members – and does this support vary when it comes to SMEs and larger businesses?

Supporting, connecting and championing our members is what the Chamber is all about. As soon as we saw that the coronavirus pandemic was affecting businesses in our region, we moved quickly to ensure we were both a reliable source of up-to-date guidance and a strong voice calling for the right support to help firms survive this crisis.

The Chamber announced a £100,000 fund on March 23. Why was it important to do this so quickly and how is it supporting local businesses?

We know that cashflow is one of the biggest challenges for businesses right now. Thankfully, the Chamber is in a position to be able to support members facing difficulties by using this fund to offer holidays on their membership fees. The applications we’ve received demonstrate how serious this situation is, but we’ve also been pleased to see the solidarity shown by those companies who are able to maintain their contribution to the Chamber and support the rest of the business community.

How has the lockdown impacted you and your team’s ability to deliver your role?

We pride ourselves on being a flexible and agile employer, and thankfully we had systems in place to allow a rapid transition to home working. However, so much of what we do to campaign on behalf of members relies on personal connections and face-to-face interaction. Moving to doing this entirely ‘virtually’ has presented some challenges, especially when parts of the political system lag well behind business when it comes to using new technology, but we’re pleased with what we’ve been able to achieve. In the absence of holding major events and seminars, the crisis has also forced us to think about how we deliver content to our members. Again, engagement in our webinars, online networking and Q&As has been really positive.

One such webinar has focused on mental health. Why was it important to address this issue in particular?

You cannot place too high a value on good mental health. This crisis is affecting people’s wellbeing in many ways; from business owners trying to stay afloat to employees worried about the future. It is essential that people look after themselves during what is an incredibly stressful time for so many of us. Encouraging people to invest time in their mental wellbeing is something we believe to be an important mission.

The Chancellor announced a package of measures on March 20 to support people, jobs and businesses. What did you think of the measures? Where they the right interventions at that time? Were there any other support schemes you would have liked to see?

The early interventions addressed many of the issues that businesses were raising with us, such as potential redundancies, cashflow issues and looming tax bills. Inevitably, the speed with which they were announced meant there were big gaps in provision. Support for the self-employed was the most immediate gap. While further announcements have helped in this regard, there are many business owners not eligible due to the way their business operates. We have also pushed for changes to the Government’s furlough scheme to protect workers who fell outside the original payroll cut-off date. Again, this has been addressed to some extent but there are still many who will currently miss out. The biggest issues have been with the Government’s loan scheme. Quite simply, not enough money has been lent and it is not reaching firms fast enough.

The size and scale of the measures were intended to instil confidence in the business community, as was the Chancellor’s statement that the Government would do “whatever it takes”. Do you think this confidence has been achieved?

No schemes were going to be perfect and we know there will always be some firms that fall through the cracks. What is important is that the Government continues to listen to businesses as the effects of coronavirus grow. The job of supporting the economy through the pandemic has only just begun, and it is only by heeding the feedback of firms that the Government can enable a sustainable recovery.

Part of the Chamber’s remit is to lobby Government. Are you still able to fulfil this during the lockdown?

We place a lot of emphasis on our role in campaigning for a better business environment. This enables us to be a strong independent voice and play a leading role in the British Chambers of Commerce.

As you mention, the North East England Chamber of Commerce is part of a wider network. Have you been speaking to your colleagues from other regions? And if so, what insights are they providing?

We speak to colleagues in London daily to understand the latest political developments and to provide feedback from businesses in the North East. This has been crucial in securing changes to the Government’s support schemes we’ve seen in recent weeks.

As we head further into this crisis, what ongoing support measures for business would you like to see announced by the Government?

Firstly, the Government must get the loan scheme working and ensure money is reaching businesses in need, fast. The job retention scheme also still omits many people who changed jobs in February and March. This must be addressed.

How will the COVID-19 outbreak change the strategy of the Chamber in 2020 and beyond?

As we begin to look at what the economy will need to recover from the effects of coronavirus, there will undoubtedly be issues that we wouldn’t have had to think about were it not for the pandemic. However, our overall faith in the untapped potential of the region’s economy remains strong. While this has been a global issue, efforts to support economic recovery must recognise the significant regional imbalances that exist in our country. We will continue to be a proud and vocal champion of the North East and will campaign for investment and policy changes that help us build a stronger economy.

North East England Chamber of Commerce

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