Covid-19: How UK Businesses Can Tackle the Crisis
The British government, in cooperation with the treasury and selected commercial banks, have implemented a number of policies and schemes designed to help businesses of all sizes and types overcome the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the early days of the crisis, the signals appeared to be strong for British businesses. Chancellor Rishi Sunak won plaudits for the swiftness of his response and his commitment to delivering ‘whatever it takes’ to support the economy.
In recent weeks, however, momentum behind government’s support has slowed. The flagship support scheme, The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), has been criticised for both its complexity and tardiness in delivering vital loans to businesses who need it most. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), designed to prevent sudden mass unemployment and resulting economic shock, has been seen by many as an over-simplistic, ‘blunt instrument’. For businesses at all ends of the spectrum, cash is running out at an alarming rate. Already, government support has been unable to prevent businesses from failing and many will not be saved. So what can be done?
We have seen inspiring examples of businesses and communities in the UK adapting to meet the needs of the nation and the UK’s public healthcare system, the NHS. From gin distilleries brewing surgical hand gel to airspace defence manufactures making components for hospital ventilators, there has been some outstanding stories of innovation in the private sector. In this post, we have a look at some of the businesses that are collaborating to find practical solutions to the myriad problems that Covid-19 has produced, and explore what these businesses can teach us when we reach the other side of the crisis.
AstraZeneca & Glaxo Smithkline
Astra Zeneca and Glaxo-Smith-Kline, two of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers in the UK, announced a partnership with Cambridge University to provide up to 30,000 Covid-19 testing kits per day to the British public. The initiative will take a sizeable chunk out of the Health Secretary’s goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April and will focus on the use of alternative chemical reagents in order to help overcome current global supply shortages. This mobilisation by two of the biggest rivals in the UK pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s a significant statement of the private sector’s intent to work with government to find solutions to this crisis. The partnership is made more impressive by the fact that diagnostics do not usually form a core part of either company’s business models. High profile collaborations such as this can act as an example to all businesses in the current climate. The private sector is central to tackling Covid-19 but must temporarily put aside its divisions in order to do so.
Collaborations are not only happening at the top level. In fact, they are having a notable impact when big companies work closely with small businesses or the self-employed. Take Taylor Wimpey, the FTSE 100 housebuilder, who recently announced a “pay it forward” scheme to help the freelance craftspeople who would usually be working on their sites and are still waiting to receive government support.
The scheme will make interest-free advance payments of £600 per month to subcontractors for work that is expected to be completed once the lockdown comes to an end. So far, £5m has already been deployed and up to 2,750 workers could benefit from the scheme all together. Not only is this initiative supporting freelancers who have fallen through the cracks of government support, but importantly, it makes sound business sense to Taylor Wimpey. During the financial crisis, Taylor Wimpey were one of a group of housebuilders whose subcontractor-reliant workforce were virtually wiped out. Not only a tragic event for freelance traders, but also for the bigger companies like Taylor Wimpey who rely on these workers for an efficient and economically viable workforce. Businesses cannot operate in isolation, supporting peers higher and lower down the chain is not just a kind gesture, it makes business sense.
Britain’s supermarkets, who have so far come through the crisis favourably owing to increases in sales from home-bound consumers, have utilised their strong position to support smaller suppliers in the chain. Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, two of the largest supermarket chains in the UK, have been notably proactive, implementing ‘immediate payment’ schemes to assist approximately 1,500 suppliers affected by the pandemic. At Morrisons, all supplying firms with an annual turnover of £1 million or below will be paid immediately for their orders, rather than the 30 – 60 day framework which was in place before the crisis begun. Both groups are also putting financing options in place to help their suppliers plan their production volumes and cash flow.
These appear relatively trivial measures for giants whose sales have reached record levels in the last month. However, they are measures that are set to make a valuable impact in both the short and long term. We have heard repeatedly of the liquidity crisis facing small businesses in recent weeks, and consumer goods suppliers are especially exposed to this problem. Instant payment for those small suppliers who need it most will have a lifesaving effect and will go some way in propping up our already stretched supply chains. Every year 50,000 small businesses are estimated to go out of business as a result of late payments. Now that it is clear that changes to large companies’ payment conduct is achievable, perhaps one positive outcome of this crisis will be that initiatives such as the ‘immediate payments scheme’ will cease to be a scheme and will continue as a widespread feature of the economy.
As we approach week number five of lockdown and the government continues to grapple with Covid-19’s unprecedented effect on businesses, one question we might ask is whether we will see more of the types of collaborations that have been studied in this post. For some businesses, these kinds of actions simply aren’t achievable. Their business models aren’t equipped for such an immediate restructuring, or their product is of little use in this new essentials-focused reality. For those that are capable, and who are able to share valuable expertise and resources with peers, we have already seen how quickly mobilisation can take place. In the long run, we may find that granular acts of support and collaboration between businesses combine to form a rescue package that even the most complex state support scheme would be unable to provide.