The penultimate Swindon & Wiltshire Business and Economy meeting of 2020 took place recently via Zoom, with 50 businesses across the region registered to attend.
Following on from a series of monthly meetings throughout the year, the event gave the opportunity to hear from key business leaders in Swindon & Wiltshire regarding the COVID-19 situation and for attendees to share key issues with local decision makers.
Chris Stevens delivered a regular update on behalf of SWLEP, before Rachel Finlay, Economy & Enterprise Manager at Wiltshire Council, presented some detailed and in-depth intelligence regarding the state of the jobs market in the county.
Somewhat positively, the number of people on furlough in Wiltshire had decreased since its peak in June as parts of the economy such as non-essential retail have reopened. Furthermore, approximately 90% of workers who had been furloughed remain on payroll, suggesting that the vast majority of workers returned to work in the summer/early autumn.
Presently, around 10% of the county’s working population is furloughed. Statistics also showed that there are around 20% fewer jobs in accommodation and food services today than there were pre-COVID, underlining the devastating effect the crisis has had upon this sector.
Rachel also gave details of fresh financial support from government now available to businesses in Wiltshire. The local restriction support grants are a rates-based scheme open to businesses who have been forced to close as a result of lockdown restrictions. The grant money is paid once every 4 weeks and is intended to cover fixed overheads.
Digging deeper into the unemployment figures in the aforementioned accommodation and food services sector was Visit Wiltshire CEO David Andrews. According to their calculations, between 10-15,000 jobs have been lost in the sector across Swindon & Wiltshire due to the initial lockdown in spring and operating at reduced capacity – roughly 30-40% pre-COVID levels of trade – over the summer months.
All things considered, the short-medium term outlook is looking gloomy, said David.
A recent survey of UK consumer confidence suggests falling demand for domestic holidays in coming months as a result of COVID-19 and Brexit. It is a similar picture amongst consumers in Germany and France, however, anecdotal evidence suggests US consumers remain upbeat about leisure travel, particularly in Wiltshire.
David described unprecedented “pent up demand” in the US market for touring holidays taking in the tourist sites of Swindon & Wiltshire such as Stonehenge, and said his team were inundated with enquiries in anticipation of travel restrictions being lifted in the new year.
One silver lining David suggested was the increased demand for tourism in rural areas. Hence, given Wiltshire’s rural geography, David said he was cautiously optimistic about a strong recovery in 2021.
David ended by paying tribute to the work of Visit Britain and Visit England, who embarked on massive domestic marketing campaigns this year, helping businesses to salvage the summer after a crippling start to 2020.
Catalent’s Peter Allen was next to address the Swindon & Wiltshire Business and Economy meeting, bringing rare news of business growth in these testing times. Swindon is playing a role in the fight against COVID peter said, with Catalent working with the likes of Astra Zeneca and Moderna – just two of the companies which have made COVID vaccine breakthroughs in recent weeks.
Peter also described how Catalent’s long standing expertise and investment in biologics was beginning to pay off as a result of COVID-19. The technology is driving the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and is contributing 44% of Catalent’s revenues, up from just 4% a few years ago.
Catalent continues to invest and grow in Swindon, having recently expanded its manufacturing facility in the town.
The meeting ended on an upbeat and optimistic note, with Dr Geraint Coles of Royal Agricultural University (RAU) offering a sneak preview of the RAU’s Cultural Heritage Institute in Swindon.
An investment to the tune of £1.35m in the town will provide a springboard for careers in archaeology, applied heritage and historic environment management, said Geraint, with the Institute offering a range of professional and postgraduate qualifications including, a ground-breaking MBA, taught masters programmes, high level CPD and PhD opportunities.
Swindon was a natural fit for CHI, he added, given the extent of learning resources on its doorstep, including Historic England, English Heritage, the National Monuments Archive, the National Trust and Steam – the museum of the Great Western Railway.
The building was completed in September and will be fully operational and welcoming students in February 2021.
Our next and final Swindon & Wiltshire Business and Economy meeting of 2020 will be held on 9 December. Register to attend to hear from Highways England about the Stonehenge bypass, Bruce Bodio from Bioviron and Tracy Daszkiewicz, Deputy Director at Public Health England, who played a leading role in the response to the Novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.