Spare a thought for small businesses

When we emerge from this crisis, many SMEs will be left with a hangover of liabilities

Some businesses have now reached the point where they are struggling to cover a basic cost.  Photograph: iStock

Some businesses have now reached the point where they are struggling to cover a basic cost. Photograph: iStock

 

A year on from when Government announced the first Covid-19 lockdown, annual accounts published by ESB showed that small businesses hit by ongoing restrictions are struggling to pay electricity bills.

The State-owned energy group has provided €15 million in its accounts for bad debts, most of them stemming from smaller enterprises having difficulty paying those bills.

Not surprisingly, the worst-hit sectors are non-essential retail and hospitality, large parts of which are closed in lockdown, and opened sporadically, often in a limited way, over the past year.

That €15 million is not a large sum for ESB. Its accounts showed that last year it had €3.7 billion in revenues, and profits of €126 million after tax and €247 million of write downs. Not only that, Pat Fenlon, ESB’s chief financial officer, indicated that it would ultimately reach a settlement with most of those customers.

It is not a big problem in the greater scheme of things, but it tells its own story. Some businesses have now reached the point where they are struggling to cover a basic cost. What other bills are mounting up alongside this?

Plenty of enterprises are probably covering energy costs, while allowing other liabilities to grow as they juggle around whatever cash they have.

When we eventually emerge from this crisis, many small- and medium-sized businesses, which collectively employ the majority of workers, will be left with a hangover of liabilities from this period.

The individual sums may not be large, but they could be significant to each business involved, in some cases potentially enough to send employers under without some form of aid.

That could slow recovery as employers may not be able to replace all jobs lost through the past year while they work to clear crisis-era debt. Small businesses are likely to need Government support into the medium term.

In the meantime, spare a thought for those in this situation. It must be miserable to have gone from running a viable business a year ago to struggling to pay bills today.

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