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One year on: counting the cost of COVID on small firms

30 March 2021

A year after the first lockdown, new research shows how the pandemic has left many UK freelancers and small business owners struggling.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the total number of self-employed people in the UK has fallen by 660,000 compared to the same time last year - equivalent to more than one in eight self-employed people leaving the sector.

Meanwhile, research by freelancer body IPSE has found that the pandemic has had a "devastating impact" on those that remain - particularly the one million still excluded from government support.

IPSE's findings show that:

  • More than one in five self-employed people have had to take on credit card debt to get by;
  • One in seven have had to use their overdrafts;
  • More than a quarter have had to use up all their savings to survive financially.

IPSE's study also shows that there has been a staggering 341% increase in the number of self-employed people claiming Universal Credit during the last year: from 47,000 to 206,200.

The ONS data shows the scale of the decline in both male and female freelancers: a fall of 462,000 in the number of male freelancers compared to 198,000 female freelancers. IPSE research also shows that there has been a worrying drop of 8% in the number of disabled self-employed people - a group that had seen continuous growth over the past decade.

"The pandemic has had a disproportionately damaging impact on the self-employed sector in the last year, with one in eight being driven out - into employment or out of work altogether - and many more struggling with severe financial loss," said IPSE ceo Derek Cribb.

"One of the crucial causes is the complexity of self-employment in the UK: the excessive number of ways people can be freelance - from limited companies to PAYE freelancers. This systemic complexity then led to terrible individual consequences as the government struggled - and in many cases failed - to distribute support to the various and very different self-employed groups."

A survey of more than 2,800 small business owners by payments provider SumUp has found that one in five small business owners (22%) reported a sharp drop in sales (over a third) during the pandemic and 73% say they have not received enough government financial support to cover their losses. The findings also show that while 66% of small business owners applied for financial support from the government, 11% of these got no help at all.

Even so, UK small business owners have demonstrated their resilience, with one in 20 saying they have "completely" pivoted their business in the past 12 months. Overall, 51% of small firms have changed their operations in some way over the past year, including introducing remote payment options, gift cards and online stores.

Or Perlman, UK country lead at SumUp, said: "Many business owners are experiencing an incredibly difficult and frustrating time … Yet through adapting to these difficult circumstances, which have ranged anywhere from moving the business premises to adopting an ecommerce model, introducing new safety measures, to completely changing their business - small businesses are continuing to endure the pandemic with these innovative changes helping to keep things ticking over, until they can fully open their doors again."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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