Coronavirus emergency - London's businesses cooperate and adapt
23 March 2020
The scale, speed and suddenness of the Coronavirus impact has taken everyone by surprise. Only a week ago, we were planning for our Mayoral manifesto launch, setting out the priorities for London for the future, for an election that will now not happen this year.
Many of those priorities will be important again, but today there is only one – responding to this threat in a way that brings the capital and country together so that we can thrive again in the future. Many industries will need help from the Government in the days, weeks and months ahead. The Chancellor’s announcement that rates relief will be extended more widely in the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors is welcome and important, but more will need to be done for other sectors in the days to come, not least aviation and construction.
Unsurprisingly our members have told us they expect to be significantly impacted with the vast majority spoken to saying they face a significant threat to their business, with no one expecting to be unaffected. But the immediacy here is alarming, with some expecting to go out of business in a matter of weeks – some a matter of days – unless the Government can do more to help.
Businesses are adapting as best they can, switching face-to-face operations for online, keeping staff motivated from home, reforecasting as projects are cancelled, putting in place temporary closures, working out how to continue public consultations on a virtual basis and slowing down construction.
The spirit of cooperation is high, with many reaching out to each other and to their supply chains to see how they can work together to come through this. From conversations with our members, it feels like there is currently an even split between those who feel the Government’s measures will go some way to help and those who think what’s been announced so far will have limited effect. Clearly, it is an unprecedented situation unlike any we’ve seen before and we won’t know for some time what will work, or what will be enough, but it is vital that the Government continues to do its best, as saving these businesses means saving people’s livelihoods and should mean that the road to recovery will not be as long.
But for some, they may run out of time before Government help reaches them. This is particularly stark for education institutions reliant on overseas students who have seen their current demand collapse with no short-term likelihood that this will come back. They cannot afford to take out loans when, as one said, they are staring down the barrel of years until they hit a return to profitability.
Another sector grappling with the immediate challenge is construction, a sector that employs 3.3 million in the UK, with almost 40% of the workforce self-employed. Rather than a complete shutdown, which would have massive economic ramifications, the sector has asked the Government to support its efforts to continue to operate responsibly while keeping people safe. Like many sectors, the central plea is for the Government to stay alert to the needs of businesses across the country, and respond rapidly as the situation changes.
The Government should now reach out to businesses and their representatives so that help can be quickly targeted and at scale. We, and many other bodies like us, stand ready to help and will do all we can to ensure that, when this period comes to an end, our members and our city is ready and able to get back on its feet. We are in unprecedented times, but we do know that as soon as we can look ahead and get businesses, projects and investments back on track, we must.
A version of this article originally appeared in City AM on 20th March 2020.