In my maiden speech, I styled myself as the one-woman tourist board for North Devon. Not anymore. In the past few months, I have been pleading to people to stay away and I now feel more than responsible than ever for my tourism businesses as a result. How they will re-open whilst protecting the health of constituents, particularly vulnerable and elderly residents?
Here in North Devon tourism accounts for 20% of all jobs; a sector worth over half a billion pounds. I worked alongside Government Ministers to ensure businesses closed here at the end of March this year to protect our small, but perfectly formed, North Devon District Hospital. With just 8 ICU beds and defined as the most rural and smallest hospital on the UK mainland, allowing a flood of visitors in the run up to Easter was going to rapidly overwhelm our local NHS services.
Local residents understood what was asked of them, and with almost 20% of the population over 70, pensioners rapidly moved and stayed indoors. Just like everywhere in the UK voluntary groups sprung up all over the place – with our One Ilfracombe group rightly recognised nationally as an exemplary solution to volunteering. North Devon really has demonstrated the best in community spirit. Thankfully the vast majority of visitors did what was asked of them and stayed at home. Sadly, not everyone complied, but for those that did, thank you. We look forward to seeing you soon.
Like the rest of the South West the virus is clearly several weeks behind London and here in North Devon, with hardly a reported case ‘herd immunity’ is certainly not a phase we can use as we clearly have none. Sadly, despite our remoteness we have had losses in our hospital and probably more losses in our care homes. What we worry about now is not this first peak, which we thankfully mostly avoided, but the second wave that could overwhelm us all. I have spoken with the Chief Executive of our NHS Trust this week about the huge risks of tourists arriving in North Devon. As the NHS starts to return to routine surgery and with restrictions sure to be gradually eased soon, areas around the UK in the South West, Wales and Scotland should be worried about whether our joy at being at the bottom of the Daily Briefing graphs was, in fact, just a temporary reprieve.
The Government is going to have to give significant support and guidance to tourism businesses like mine in North Devon and the rest of the country that have remained dutifully closed. The support available for these few key months has been welcome and more than helpful in every industry, but in the tourism industry, particularly in the South West, those few months often account for almost a full year’s trade. The Small Business Grants and Job Retention schemes were not designed to make up for this.
Many small businesses have fallen through the cracks in the excellent package of measures announced by the Treasury. Unfortunately, many of March’s seasonal staff were not registered with the HMRC by the 19th March, many small B&Bs only paid Council Tax and therefor do not qualify for grants, others share premises with other micro businesses and again do not qualify. There is a certain irony that there are so many highly deserving businesses getting no grants here, whilst our District Council is still waiting for over 30% of businesses to even apply for a grant, potentially leaving £15M available to support small businesses. The current regulations, however, mean this money cannot be used for that purpose. These frustrations are further exacerbated by some second homeowners, who choose to avoid paying Council Tax by registering for Business Rates, being able to claim the £10K grant, whilst self-isolating in these properties.
So, whilst other sectors contemplate how they re-open, should tourism re-open this year at all? Would it be easier to give business some certainty that this year’s season will not happen? Could we just open to regional visitors as the south west peninsula has been spared the worst of the virus? How can social distancing be enforced in environments designed to encourage social contact such as hotels and guest houses? And will they be compensated for operating at reduced capacity to enable social distancing to be enforced? Can we really extend our tourism season when school holidays remain rigidly set – or will there be flexibility as schools adopt social distancing and maybe reduce attendance for holiday dates to be more flexible, enabling family attractions to extend their season this year. Will the furlough scheme and maybe additional grants continue long enough to get through to next Spring when seasonal businesses will reopen?
The balance between the health of residents and long-term future of our tourism industry in in this country is incredibly delicate. Our situation here in North Devon is unique with such a small hospital, an elderly population, and with such a low level of infection, but I know these concerns will be reflected in all four corners of the UK. Many other MPs with strong tourist economies share many of my concerns as we try our hardest to welcome back the tourists our economy so badly needs.
We need to reopen carefully, safely and slowly and yes, we will need the help of the Government but most importantly you. The South West is more than just a place for a few weeks in the summer. The weather here is better all year round, the walks are better all year round, the beaches are better all year round, the surfing is better all year round, our air quality is always this good all year round – basically we are open all year round. Hope to see you soon.
Actually, it looks like I still am the one-woman tourist board for North Devon after all.