UK business chiefs call for further support amid Covid debt mountains

UK business chiefs have warned MPs that a “generation” of firms could face collapse without further support, after piling up billion of pounds in debt during the pandemic.

Leaders in the UK’s hospitality, travel and retail sectors made a fresh plea for financial support measures and policy shifts at the Treasury Select Committee on Monday.

Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel trade body Abta, told MPs at the committee that Government support has not been “adequate” for the impact of the pandemic on the UK travel sector.

He said: “The support measures that have been available have been appreciated, but at the margin and not adequate for the scale of the challenge the travel industry has faced and is facing.

“The summer season counts for two-thirds, we are in it, and no-one is travelling.

“The Government needs to recognise that the travel sector is in a class of its own regarding the pain it’s suffered really.

Gatwick airport
Passengers arrive at Gatwick airport (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

“And if we don’t have support through these critical weeks, I really do fear that we will be losing a generation of travel companies if we don’t act and get financial support to them now.”

It comes as thousands of UK tourists scramble back from Portugal before new coronavirus rules come into force.

Mr Tanzer said the Government’s decision to remove Portugal from the green travel list was a “real blow” and it sent a signal that “international travel is not going to come back as envisaged”.

He added that there is still discernible demand for travel from UK consumers, but said this has been stifled by obstacles and communication issues regarding requirements needed for foreign travel.

Meanwhile, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, and Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) told MPs at the select committee that the Government should extend the current rent moratorium.

The moratorium is set to end on June 30, paving the way for landlords to take action to reclaim rent arrears accrued during the pandemic.

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Ms Nicholls said: “You are going to have long Covid for the economy if you are not very careful.

“We currently have £2.5 billion in historic rent debt which is going to fall in one hit on July 1, when the moratoriums end, so we urgently need those extending.

“We are two weeks away from the next quarter rent day, so we need that extended as a matter of urgency and we need the Government to work with us, lenders, landlords, to find a solution to this rent debt, so we don’t start tripping up businesses and causing insolvencies when we should be coming out of this crisis.”

Ms Dickinson added that the pandemic has accelerated the shift of retail firms further online and warned that the future of many stores could hang on changes to the moratorium and business rates.

“We’ve seen a closer relationship between physical and digital, but we’ve lost around 5,000 shops over 2020,” she said.

“Whether we lose more than we need to will depend on the moratorium decision, giving space to businesses which need to negotiate with landlords, and the business rates review.”