BUSINESS owners in Winchester who are fearing the end of the furlough scheme should be acting now to give their company finances the best chance of staying on an even keel.

Garry Lee, regional chair of insolvency and restructuring trade body R3’s South and Thames Valley region, is advising employers who are concerned about meeting their wage commitments when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme closes on 31 October to start looking for advice now, rather than ignoring an issue that could threaten their business’s viability.

The proportion of furloughed employees’ wages that the government pays through the scheme dropped from 80 per cent to 70 per cent at the beginning of September and is due to fall to 60 per cent from October 1, before it winds up altogether at the end of that month.

The imminent removal of this support will put the burden of paying staff wages wholly back on employers – and with many firms either trading at a greatly reduced level compared to before the pandemic or still not operating at all, there are fears that there could be a sharp rise in the number of companies in financial difficulty.

Garry Lee, who is an Associate Director in the recovery and restructuring services department at accountancy firm Smith & Williamson, said: “The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has clearly made an existential difference to thousands of companies in the South which would have undoubtedly faced financial distress had the scheme not been available.

“The support measures that were put in place were never meant to be permanent, and we could now start to see insolvency numbers rise as the true impact of the pandemic begins to become apparent.

“Despite the steps taken by the government, we’ve still seen swathes of job cuts being made by every type and size of business, while redundancy numbers are only going in one direction - and pretty quickly at that.

“More than ever, cash is going to be king in business. Knowing precisely where you are in terms of cashflow, outgoings and payment deadlines has never been more important, while communicating clearly with staff, customers and suppliers is essential.”

The Government says it has protected 9.6million jobs through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Garry added: “Business owners in Winchester can’t afford to put their heads in the sand.

“The challenges that we’re all going to be facing are only too clear and trying to ignore them in the hope that they’ll go away is only going to make things much worse.

“It might be that some job losses are inevitable as the extent of the issues facing a given business become clear.”