THE Government’s support for the North-East business community during the Covid-19 pandemic has been severely criticised.

James Ramsbotham, North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive, laid bare many of the frustrations and disappointments about the Government’s performance over recent months at an annual general meeting.

He said: “Government’s actions have been woeful on a number of levels. One of my main concerns has been communication. This has been exceedingly poor, both in the manner of the message delivery and the appalling lack of clarity. It has created a heightened sense of alarm and widely damaged confidence.

“The level of support available has also fallen short of levels needed. The Chancellor spent £30bn in his summer statement, but achieved very little. The support measures should have been extended to the so-called ‘excluded’ such as the self–employed operating as limited companies and those who took up new jobs in February/March but were not eligible for the furlough Job Retention Scheme. Many hard-working businesspeople have had little to no financial support for the last five months. The furlough scheme should also be extended for certain sectors such as hospitality and available for potential local lockdowns in the future.

“Our country’s ‘track and trace’ process is simply not fit for purpose. We have heard from Chamber colleagues around the world where their Governments have devised systems which create real confidence so that people feel comfortable to go about their business and to visit hospitality and leisure venues. Getting this system right is crucial to us getting the economy back on track.

“We also need Government to make sure schools and nurseries are at the heart of its economic strategy. People need to have certainty in their childcare provision to be able to go to work.

“Uncertainty around Brexit and the risk of a ‘no deal’ outcome is another massive threat to our business community. Companies have prepared twice for previous deadlines, at tremendous expense. Many do not have the cashflow to do so again. Leaving the EU will mean an increase in red tape which will be so challenging. We export more than any other UK region and our exporters must have a good deal if they are to flourish.

“Levelling up has been a Government rally cry but we have seen nothing concrete to suggest it is a serious ambition. We, as a region, entered this pandemic with the highest unemployment figures, lowest life expectancy and highest number of children in low income households. Our economy and health are closely entwined. We need Government to give us the financial support to enable us to exploit our potential. There has to be action, not words.”

The meeting was also an opportunity to stress the four themes of Chamber campaigns going forward, which will be based around community, fairness, sustainability and opportunity.

Chamber president Lesley Moody thanked the North-East business community for all of their support during the pandemic. She said: “From the moment this crisis hit, we have worked with our members to maintain the connectivity, knowledge and collective influence that bind our fantastic community of businesses. As president, I could not be prouder of the efforts made by members and the chamber team and of the resilience, innovation and ingenuity they’ve exhibited over recent months.

“Our online events brought you together to debate, share expertise and network. We have worked to equip you with the latest advice, guidance, and support while many of you have made use of our Membership Relief Fund to get through this difficult period.

“We have also successfully campaigned for Government intervention to prevent an immediate economic collapse and as James has said, we continue to constantly challenge and remind them of the promises made around levelling up and its importance to our region and our businesses. Meanwhile members from across the region responded to our call for PPE; ensuring supplies of vital equipment made it to the front line of the fight against coronavirus. We are more than a network; we are a community.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.

“The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives. We put in place an unprecedented initial economic support package for jobs and business worth £160bn. The next stage in our economic response will make a further £30bn available to ensure all areas of the UK bounce back.”