THE impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses in St Helens has been “catastrophic”, with further closures expected in the coming months, a new council report has said.

A report providing an analysis of St Helens Borough Council’s performance over the first quarter of 2020-12 gives a bleak assessment of the damage already caused to the local economy by Covid-19.

The report, which was presented to cabinet this week, says footfall in St Helens town centre remains low, and will likely have a “real negative effect” in the coming months.

“The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our business community and the local economy has been catastrophic with premises forced to close, furloughing of staff and the increase in financial hardship as a result,” the council report says.

“During this period, our business support team has worked tirelessly to provide appropriate advice and signposting to ensure that local companies have been able to access all relevant financial and advisory support.”

To support businesses during the pandemic, the council has dispensed more than £25 million in business grants, paid by central Government.

It has also made a further £1.5 million available through its discretionary fund to support local businesses that may not have received financial support previously.

This fund has so far received more than 200 applications, with almost £1 million having been distributed.

Currently, the vacancy rate in St Helens town centre stands at just 20.88 per cent, with 62 vacancies against a total of 297 units.

While many of the shops have now re-opened, the footfall for St Helens town centre remains low, the report says, due to most of the office-based staff in the town centre working remotely.

In addition, it is thought that people are not yet fully returning to the town centre due to confidence issues, while changes in consumer behaviour due to the growth in online shopping is also impacting footfall.

“This is potentially likely to have a real negative effect in the coming months,” the report says.

“Businesses are currently assessing their workforce, with many employees still on furlough, and reviewing their estate in light of the pandemic, which will potentially lead to further closures in the coming months.

“Virgin Media have already made a national decision to close their high street shops and it is anticipated more will follow.

“However, enquiries for food and drink and barbers and hairdressers’ premises continue to be received, as well as proposed alternative uses for shops or former retail units in the town centre.

“The position will continue to be closely monitored.”