by Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee, Head of Policy at Countryside Alliance, writes for the Yorkshire Post about the impact that rural key workers have had on their local communities. This piece was first in the Yorkshire Post on Wednesday 10th February 2021.

There has been one constant that has served our rural communities without fail over the last year with a welcoming smile and a can-do attitude.

Whether it is getting loo rolls to Tadcaster or pasta to Pocklington, our village shops, farm shops, butchers and pubs have saved our communities come rain or shine.

We have seen many acts of heroism – from small acts of kindness that put a smile on someone’s face, to bringing the whole community together. The support that they have offered to others and the role they play in our communities cannot be underestimated. They might not be working on the NHS front line, but they are certainly on the front line for our rural communities.

We all know that the pandemic has been a difficult time for many businesses and continues to present challenges. Whether it has meant adapting a business, furloughing staff or responding to unprecedented demand for services, the dedication going on behind the scenes to keep the show on the road has been a Herculean effort.

The Countryside Alliance, through our annual awards, has always championed rural businesses from pubs to post offices and farm shops to farriers, as we know they are the cornerstone of their communities. They are not just a place to post a letter or buy a pint but a source of information, a social hub and a watchful eye over the vulnerable.

To ensure we are doing our best to make the voice of rural businesses heard, we have been taking their pulse, hearing their concerns and triumphs, and monitoring how they have adapted given the challenges of the last year.

As you can imagine, there are two very different stories emerging. This study has shown that while our village shops, farm shops and butchers have seen an increase in sales between 20-50 per cent, the closure of the hospitality industry has had a devastating impact on pubs and restaurants, and their suppliers.

With sales of meat, vegetables and dairy products, as well as staple food items such as flour, eggs, and bread increasing, we can see that local communities are relying on rural shops for their everyday goods. We hope that those who may not have been using their local shops beforehand, will continue to do so as when restrictions ease.

On the other hand, the impact that restrictions have had on the pub and hospitality industry are devastating and many will not survive the longer this goes on. Pubs are at the forefront of their communities, alongside village shops, up and down the countryside and their loss would be both catastrophic and irreversible.

When the Government addresses the matter of easing the lockdown, pubs need a clear roadmap alongside sufficient, practical and advanced warning. Rules such as having to purchase substantial meals for example, need to be scrapped as this appears to be having an adverse effect on customer flow, something many pubs just can’t afford. Financial security in the event of prolonged periods of closure is also key to their survival.

However, despite the knocks that pubs continue to have, they are still keen to do their bit. Acutely aware that many elderly and vulnerable people living in the countryside will struggle to get to mass vaccination centres via public transport, our research shows that eight in 10 rural pubs would support their unused premises being used in the vaccine rollout. It is this kind of spirit that we must continue to support and embrace at these difficult times.

The common theme between shops and pubs was the poor communication from the Government, local authorities and the short notice of changing restrictions. It takes time to un-furlough staff, put in place procedures and equipment to keep people safe. However, with proper advance warning, clear guidance and support, we can work together to keep people safe while serving our rural communities.

Our study has given us this insight in to how much people are relying on the unsung heroes of our rural communities by supporting local. And as we continue to live under restrictions, there are some glimmers of a return to a different kind of normality as the vaccine rolls out, although this could still be many months away. In the meantime, we want to thank those who are working tirelessly and remaining open, adapting however they can to serve their local communities. We want to ensure you that your hard work is recognised and is appreciated. Thank you.

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