Over 50% drop in trade after first Covid-19 restrictions lifted

Companies that reopened under the first phase of the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions are experiencing less than half their usual level of business activity for this time of the year, a new survey has found.

The survey of businesses across the country also found that a quarter of respondents expect to have earnings that will be 70% lower than usual over the next three months. 

The data, gathered by Chambers Ireland, also shows that smaller firms have seen their revenue reduced more significantly than larger ones.

“We’ve had a mini economic Ice Age, effectively, and we need a very far-reaching programme to un-freeze it,” said Ian Talbot, chief executive of Chambers Ireland on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“There’s also a regional impact to this where we’re finding that the west, border and south-east regions seem to be worst affected – and also unpaid debts are increasingly a problem.”

More than 1,300 companies responded to the survey, which was carried out between 28 May and 2 June, prior to the most recent easing of restrictions and the granting of permission for the reopening of all retail outlets.

Overall, the results show that business activity levels have been extremely low for firms that reopened under Phase 1, beginning on 18 May. 

Typically, these companies are experiencing less than half their normal levels of business activity for this time of year.

Not surprisingly, those in entertainment, tourism, hospitality, retail and education are among the worst hit.

Most respondents said they expect their earnings over the next three months to be half the normal amount, a slightly more optimistic outlook compared to the findings of the last survey when it was conducted a few weeks ago.

Mr Talbot said that the main issue seems to be a reluctance amongst consumers to return to their previous levels of activity – be it due to uncertainty about their own economic outlook or simply unease about the risk of contracting Covid-19 while outside.

“The type of operations opening, such as garden centres, have plenty of room, so they were able to accommodate social distancing,” he said. “So it seems to be about consumer behaviour and people being nervous about going back into environments where they fear they might be at risk of catching the disease.”

Another issue highlighted is the concern in the growing levels of unpaid invoices, the value of which is up significantly compared to this time last year.

“It’s a real cycle – if one person doesn’t pay, several other people don’t get paid in that cycle,” he said.

Responses also show that sentiment about the economy is beginning to improve, but there is no sign that business owners and operators are expecting a rapid snap back to normal activity.

Mr Talbot said it would not take very long, under the current circumstances, for businesses to begin to fail en mass.

“We certainly have a few more weeks and we welcomed the advancing of the phasing that took place last Friday,” he said. “But companies are going to run out of any remaining cash they have, for example, so there is an imperative to keep supporting those companies and it does need to be through a combination of grant aid… as well as measures to get consumer demand going again.”

Chambers Ireland has again reiterated its call for more supports for businesses as they reopen and try to survive in the changed economy.

“In the medium term, the next programme for government must urgently address the crisis facing local economies,” Mr Talbot said. 

“This must include the financing of an ambitious package of support that invests billions, rather than millions, of euro. Otherwise we will see our cities and towns wither further.” 

Mr Talbot added that the new government must also look beyond the direct supports to business and consider investing in infrastructure and housing. 

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