Three Mersey businesses who adapted to survive the pandemic

During the past 18 months the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on businesses but many right here in Liverpool city region, have shown remarkable resilience. Tony McDonough reports

Acorn Farm
Acorn Farm normally welcomes 80,000 people a year


There are many obvious ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted our way of life but there have been others that have been less than visible but no less devastating.

Businesses across the Liverpool city region, including those here in Knowsley, have faced huge challenges to keep their businesses going over the past and have demonstrated great resilience. Here are just three examples of how adaptable businesses have had to be…

Acorn Farm

More than 30 years ago Acorn Farm in Kirkby was established as a facility to allow disabled people to work with animals while gaining new skills. According to manager Fiona Smith, who has been there since the beginning, in the early days it offered little more than “a rabbit and two gerbils”.

Since then Acorn Farm has grown into a popular Merseyside visitor attraction, welcoming more than 80,000 people a year seven-days a week. Its animals include sheep, cows, goats, pigs, horses and chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs and even meerkats.

It is a working farm, so often has baby animals including lambs, goat kids, piglets and chicks to see. During weekends and school holidays, the 33 full and part-time team run small animal petting sessions and horse rides. There is also a farm shop selling fresh produce, a cafe and a shop selling plants.

When the first COVID-19 lockdown was announced in March 2020, Fiona wasn’t overly concerned at that point and believed, as so many of us did, that the crisis would be over in a couple of months.

“When we were putting people on furlough in March I was saying ‘I think we’ll probably be ok by the summer’,” said Fiona. “But when we got to June I realised how bad things were and it became obvious we were not going to be able to open for our busy summer period.

“We are a community facility and we want to be as affordable as we can be and we only charge around £3 for entry, a lot less than you would pay at other attractions. We don’t make a surplus in the winter but we do in the spring and summer and that makes us enough to be viable.

“This is not a big place and I realised that with social distancing rules we would not be able to open to the public and still keep the people with disabilities who we support and who are very vulnerable to COVID- safe.”

However, what Fiona and the staff found even more difficult was the enforced suspension of their day service for people with disabilities, the farm’s original purpose, when the first lockdown was called.

“Even now I get emotional thinking about it,” she said. “When the people who we support realised they had to stop coming to the farm  they were devastated. They rang us up regularly to ask when they would be able to come back and also to check that we were looking after the animals properly in their absence.”

Acorn Farm
Tom is a regular visitor to Acorn Farm in Kirkby


But by July 2020 the farm secured permission from the various authorities to resume their work with disabled people, and that has continued to this day, even through the most recent lockdown, much to the relief of Fiona and her team.

The overall impact of the pandemic has had a major impact on the finances of the business. All of the public attractions, apart from the plant shop, have remained closed. Fiona said: “Yes, we were able to put the staff on furlough but the animals don’t understand lockdowns and they still had to be fed and cared for.

“We also normally do a lot of work with schools but because of the risk of COVID spread among young people we have had to suspend that for the time being too, which has been really sad.

“We were looking forward to opening on June 21 and when the decision was taken to push that back that was really difficult. It had a big psychological impact on everyone here. However, we are optimistic that we will open up again on July 19 and I do feel like we are starting to get to the end of this.”

Aries Marquees

Sisters Gaynor and Lisa Purcell took over Aries Marquees, a 33-year-old business, in 2008 and over the following 12 years they established the venture as a North West market leader. The firm provided a range of marquees for weddings, parties and corporate events.

But when the Government announced a lockdown in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the company’s diary completely emptied overnight. Gaynor said: “Everything just stopped and, for a short time, we didn’t know what we were going to do.”

However, scientists began to amass knowledge of the virus, and how it spreads, at an incredible rate and as the weeks progressed there came a consensus that COVID was much less likely to spread at settings that were outside or there was a good flow of fresh air.

And this opened up a whole new market for Aries which, within a few weeks of lockdown, suddenly found its services in demand again. Gaynor explained: “The Government announced that it was safer to do things outdoors and so we started to get requests from companies that needed to find a way of operating as safely as possible.

Aries Marquees
Sisters Gaynor and Lisa Purcell, owners of Aries Marquees


“The first job that came through was in April was from Seqirus, one of the world’s biggest producers of flu vaccines which has a large factory in Speke in south Liverpool. They needed to set up canteen facilities for their staff and we supplied one of our marquees so they could do that.

“That kind of corporate business just grew from there. We were contacted by United Utilities and then the Liverpool Women’s Hospital and Southport hospital, too. It has opened up a whole new avenue for our business.”

In the last few weeks Gaynor and Lisa have seen the leisure market start to come back. She added: “During the pandemic people had postponed their parties, events and celebrations and now they are keen to get them organised again. As long as 50% of the sides of our marquees are open then they are classed as being outside.

“The rule which allows 30 people in a gathering is also really helpful and gives us a lot of scope. Weddings aren’t yet coming back as quickly, though. Many people have postponed until next year when they hope things will be back to normal. You feel for them because they have been waiting for so long.

“We are now really optimistic about our business in the coming months as things are now really starting to pick up. There is a real sense that people have been through so much and now they want their lives back and want to start having celebrations again.”

Liverpool John Lennon Airport

Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LJLA) has secured international recognition for creating a COVID-secure environment for passengers and staff.

Having worked closely with the UK Civil Aviation Authority and Public Health England, LJLA is one of only a handful of UK airports to have implemented the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) guidance for air travel through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to receive this ICAO recognition, the airport needed to pass a detailed and thorough review of all its procedures, providing evidence on 77 specific required measures covering all aspects of the airport journey from social distancing, toilets and touchpoints to security processes and exiting the building in a covid safe manner.

Transfer bus, LJLA
Liverpool John Lennon Airport has worked to created a COVID-secure environment


The team at the airport also undertook desktop reviews, evidencing measures in place through assessments, procedures and schedules as well as an onsite audit taking place by a team of auditors and specialist doctors.

Paul Staples, LJLA’s operations director, said: “Colleagues across the airport have worked hard throughout the pandemic to provide our passengers and those working at the airport with as much protection as we can against the spread of COVID-19.

“We have continued to develop the measures we have in place and to receive the recognition that these are now implemented in line with the latest international ICAO guidance gives passengers a further reassurance that their journey through the airport is as COVID-secure as it can be.”


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