CBI Director-General, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn's final keynote speech at the CBI Annual Conference called on the government to introduce measures that protect jobs and the economy as England heads into a second national lockdown. Carolyn went on to outline the areas of focus that will strengthen the recovery and enable the country to build back better.
Carolyn Fairbairn CBI 2020 opening address
Full transcript below.
Well, Karan, thank you so much for those incredibly warm words, and a very warm welcome to everybody joining us here today.
As Karan rightly says, this is my last week as Director-General of the CBI. And I had crafted a beautiful speech ready to deliver today, full of reflections over my last five years. I have torn it up. I tore it up at half past six on Saturday evening. Probably about the same time as many of you were tearing up your plans because this is an incredibly serious time.
We are heading into a second national lockdown. And it is incredibly bad news for people up and down the country.
For families separated, for isolation beginning, and obviously because of the concerns we all have about the nation's health.
But it is truly devastating for business, for retailers, for manufacturers, for companies who have invested millions in making their factories and their workplaces COVID safe.
And I know this is now a week of cancellations, cancelled reservations, cancelled hiring plans, cancelled investment decisions. And it is, I think, absolutely right that we devote a lot of our time here now to working out how we get through it.
So instead of a long, reflective speech, I'm going to talk about that. And I am absolutely delighted that we're going to be joined by Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, and by Keir Starmer, the Leader of The Opposition, who will be here to answer your questions.
It is a shame that we're not joined by the Prime Minister. It is a very important time for us to hear directly from him. But we do understand that, just as we have had to tear up our plans, he has had to tear up his. And I am very hopeful that before we are done here, before the CBI conference closes on Wednesday, we will have a chance to hear from him. He would be so welcome.
Before we get into the new lockdown, let's look back at what we have learned from the first one, because we've been here before.
I won't ever forget that date. It was actually March the 16th when the half-lockdown started. Pubs and restaurants were told to empty out. And then a week later, we had the full lockdown.
And that moment when I heard from thousands of businesses across the country about immediate redundancies that would happen if the Chancellor didn't act.
And I have to say, one of the things we learned was when we work together, we can do big things. And the furlough system was born. And Karan has already mentioned it, it was the TUC, it was the CBI - around the table on a Thursday - thrashing that out. And by Friday, we had a very ambitious rescue package in place.
More things followed. We had loan schemes. They got off to a difficult start. We had to evolve them. And again, the CBI team was toe-to-toe in the Treasury. The personal guarantee didn't work. There weren't enough small loans. We changed that.
We also had the COVID guidance done with BEIS, with Alok Sharma. And that has been successful. We have so many businesses open because of COVID-safe guidance.
But we also learned some of the harder lessons, when there isn't consultation.
The quarantines in and out. You know how that really damaged confidence. We also learned about the wrong kind of guidance.
The 10p.m. curfew never had enough support and evidence to back it up. But the other thing that we learned through this - and I've got to say, I was dazzled by it - was how totally extraordinary business – you - have been throughout the crisis. From that opening few months, when 14,000 ventilators were built by manufacturers working together, retailers getting our shelves restocked.
We need to remember that as the panic buying starts again. Our food companies are brilliant and firms just stepping up to keep the show on the road. It was fantastic.
We saw a glimpse of what can happen when we saw the GDP bounce back in mid-summer when the recovery began. It shows that we can bounce back again. But we do need to take some really, really hard, fast action now. And that's what I want to come onto.
So there's good and bad news about this new lockdown compared with the last one. Let's start with the good news.
We are better prepared. Thousands of businesses, because of everything you have done, are ready to be open. And one of the things that we are saying to the Government, loud and clear, is keep as much of the economy open as we possibly can.
We have schools open. Keep our schools open, not just for the sake of our children. That is massively important. But for the sake of our economy, it enables people to work.
We also need to recognise this time round, we've got some thriving sectors out there - digital, tech. If you're making sofas right now, you are run off your feet. We have thriving parts of our economy and as much as 70 percent is, and will stay, open.
We know, as I said earlier, our financial schemes work. And it was very good to see the furlough scheme immediately extended - not long enough. I will come onto that. But it is there, and it works.
And we have hope on a vaccine. Again, the collaboration between science and business and Government to get a vaccine out there. We are hopeful.
But I've got to be really honest. There are ways in which this lockdown is also much worse. Gas tanks are depleted. Batteries run down in so many businesses across the country - in retail, in hospitality. Our aviation sector absolutely on its knees.
We're heading into winter, a bleak midwinter. This is the run up to Christmas. It's the most important time for so many firms. And we have, we've seen it, lower compliance, divisions breaking out, less trust.
So, we know that damage is unavoidable. Economic damage is unavoidable. There's no point being polyannish about this, but we need to minimise it. And that requires us to get a lot of things right. And what I'm going to say today to Alok Sharma, to Keir Starmer, to the Prime Minister is that we need politicians to be listening. We need Government to be listening like never before.
And there are five things we need. It's a long list, but it's a really important list.
Firstly, we must keep as much of the economy open as possible. And it does mean that we should be challenging guidance that isn't evidence-based. One example I've heard is, for example, apparently takeaways are not going to be able to deliver anything that is alcohol-based. So, we'll have thousands of gallons of beer poured down drains. How is that evidence-based? We need to recognise the COVID safety of so many workplaces and keep as much of the economy open as we can.
Secondly, financial support, it needs to be there. It needs to be strong. And it needs to be there for the duration. The trouble is the furlough scheme ending in four weeks is tomorrow for so many businesses. We need more clarity on timing.
And more is going to be needed for some sectors. I look at aviation, an enabler of our economy. We are an open economy. We're going to need to be able to fly again for our trade, for our global trade, for our recovery. We cannot let our aviation sector die. It's going to need support. We need to look at loans. We need to look at how we extend support to the self-employed. I think that is coming.
Thirdly, we must have exit plans. This is a time for real clarity on how we get out of this. Is it into the tiered system? What's the financial support package? Where are the triggers? Let's work on that together and get it right.
Fourthly, vitally, let's use this month. It's a breathing space to plan and get our ducks in a row. For example, on rapid mass testing. A total game changer. If businesses can test employees on the frontline, they could operate normally. They can keep jobs. They can stay open. It will help our economy.
And fifthly, we've got to get better at communications. Businesses can't act on the basis of speculation and leaks and surmise. This has to get a lot better.
And meanwhile, through all of this. One of the things I will absolutely promise is that the CBI will be there every step of the way with the information, what you need to know about the new schemes, about the new guidance, we will be there to support you.
Before I close, I want to actually raise the longer term, though. Because, in the midst of this crisis, I am really worried that we are going to lose sight of how we recover. And there are many people who might say, "Well, hang on a minute. We need to defeat the virus before we think about anything else". I don't think that is right.
I think we need to be thinking about how we create jobs as well as we protect jobs. And we need to be thinking about that right now.
Because we have many people suffering through this terrible pandemic, but our young people are facing incredibly cruel challenges. And I am worried we are going to let them down.
If you're a young worker, you have been twice as likely to lose your job already through this pandemic
Seventy percent say they feel their lives are on hold. We know that depression, anxiety and real concerns about jobs and financial survival is absolutely running rife in our younger population. We cannot let them down.
And that means we need to have a plan.
We know we can do it. Look back at the Second World War, at the height of the Second World War, in 1942, Churchill commissioned the Beveridge Report.
At the height - in the middle of that crisis, we had the blueprint that was created for the welfare state and the NHS, and it supported decades of compassionate growth.
We need to be thinking like that now. Governments can do more than one thing at once, and so can business. So, what might the priorities be for this economic plan to get us to recovery?
First of all, job creation. Build, build, build. We heard it from government. It needs to happen. Let's build green. Let's build infrastructure. Let's build digital. Let's focus on inclusion and diversity, and reaching out across the UK. It's a chance to begin to tackle the unfairness and level up.
Secondly, we need a retraining revolution. We know our economy is changing and it's a chance to use those downtime hours. We are going to have young people with so much time on their hands. Let's use it to train them online with Further Education, with unions. Go after the hard to reach. Business can step up and play a huge role.
And thirdly, let's go further on decentralisation. Put power and money in local communities so that we get action that is fast in skills and infrastructure, close to where people live.
We've called this conference Building Back Better for a reason. This needs to be absolutely about that. And if we get this plan right for revival, it is the first chapter and we must not fail our young people.
How we do it? I've said already I think there is an opportunity to create something new. A commission that brings together unions, government, business. Look what we did in the crisis of COVID. We can do the same thing. To have this new chapter of building back better.
It has to move quickly. Let's create it now.
And very finally before I go and talk to James, three closing thoughts.
The first, the immeasurable importance of partnership and collaboration. You can feel division in the air. You could feel it crackling all around us. And it's not what the public want. It's not what we need.
We've got through the first part of this crisis through sticking together and working together. I say to every leader who is part of these next set of decisions, pull together. We need national unity to defeat this virus.
Secondly, collaboration has to extend across the Channel. I haven't mentioned Brexit until now, but I have to, because it would be unconscionable to unleash a no-deal Brexit on the countries of Europe, the UK and the European Union as we are facing this vicious second wave.
And I've always felt and argued that a good deal was an economic necessity. I now think it's a moral necessity as well. I urge everyone who is involved in these negotiations now: Get a deal. We need it desperately.
And my final message this afternoon is actually for my team, my team at the CBI. And it is an absolutely massive thank you.
My team has been extraordinary. We're an SME. There are only 200 of us, and every single person in the CBI took it as their mission to help business get through this crisis. And they've done it from their kitchen tables. They've been toe-to-toe with the Treasury.
They've been out across the country virtually talking to members, helping them through it, talking about issues from mental health to managing isolation to how you actually cope with lockdown.
And they've done it without fear or favour in their communications with Government and beyond. It has been the most enormous privilege to lead them during this period.
I'd also like to thank our members. You have been absolutely brilliant. I've always been proud to speak for you and never failed to be dazzled by what you've done. Thank you for your insight, your support and your friendship through thick and thin.
It really has been a privilege to lead the CBI and represent you through these most eventful of years. And I know - I absolutely know - not only that you, as businesses, will get through to the other side for your business and for your employees. But I know that it will be your innovation, your resilience and your values that get this country through as well.
And that you will be backed every step of the way by my terrific successor and the entire CBI team.
Thank you very much.