Watch the webinar
Today's webinar took the form of a conversation between the CBI’s own Director-General, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn; the CEO of Amtico International, Jonathan Duck; and the Sales Director of Keela International, Samantha Fernando. A number of topics were touched upon, including:
- Racial injustice
- Kickstarting the economy
- Groundhog Day for Brexit
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) and reopening
- The importance of transport.
Carolyn began her remarks by focusing on the “very painful two weeks” that we have witnessed since the death of George Floyd, and the “very serious issue of injustice” that has been highlighted. She added that this has grown “beyond purely the issue of the police” – and encompasses all parts of society, including business.
The CBI is eager to play a role. Indeed, said Carolyn, “we have a particular duty”. This will involve “highlighting racial injustice in the workplace” and helping businesses to bring about real, progressive change. We have already embarked on conversations with the CBI’s BAME network and will be looking to address issues of race in forthcoming webinars. As always, please do get in touch with your thoughts.
Kickstarting the economy
There is no doubt, observed Carolyn, that both the economy and the healthcare response to the pandemic have “very difficult needs” – particularly as the country emerges from lockdown. On the economic side, “the biggest concern – the right concern – is jobs”. On the healthcare side, there are “concerns that we’ll get a second wave of the virus”. How can the government strike a balance between these two considerations?
The CBI’s response is that “health must be the first priority”. Anything that threatens to cause a second spike or to reduce public confidence is, by definition, bad for business.
However, Carolyn also emphasised that, within the parameters of doing things safely, “we are able to start talking – in an urgent and forceful way – about action that is needed to kickstart the economy”.
The CBI has today written to Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma with some proposals for a “jobs-rich recovery”. These include the idea of turning Jobcentres into the “skills and jobs centres of the future”, modelled on initiatives we have seen during the pandemic to upskill workers whose livelihoods have been affected. We also believe that more investment must be made in crucial infrastructure, such as 5G and low-carbon projects.
Will the Treasury deliver on some of these proposals? There are currently, in Carolyn’s words, “rumours swirling in all directions” about whether the government will stage a Budget next month or perhaps later in the year. “What we do know,” she clarified, “is that urgent action is needed”.
Groundhog Day for Brexit
The need for action is made even more urgent by the year-end deadline for the Brexit negotiations. According to Carolyn, last week revealed that “pretty much zero progress” has been made – and “in the context of pretty much zero resilience in the country for a no-deal Brexit”.
Carolyn described the situation as “a bit like Groundhog Day”; and not just because of the faltering negotiations between the UK government and the EU, but also because of the CBI’s continuing prescription: “Get a deal!” A deal is the best outcome for businesses who, otherwise, will have to start planning for no-deal now.
What is the likelihood of a deal happening in time? One complicating factor is, of course, the pandemic. “Realistically,” explained Carolyn, “the negotiations won’t start [again] until September now, because the summer is going to be taken up with Covid rescue packages.”
PPE and reopening
Both of this morning’s guests, Samantha Fernando and Jonathan Duck, have had first-hand experience of working through the lockdown – and of how PPE can help.
The company where Samantha works, Keela International, specialises in outdoor clothing. Since the pandemic began, they have focused on producing PPE for the NHS – and have gone to great lengths to do so. “To get that social distancing in [among our workforce], we actually had to purchase another factory,” explained Samantha, “and that’s difficult to do in a lockdown situation.”
Keela also supplies face masks to its own employees (reusable ones because disposable are “not sustainable”). “The big thing with masks is that people don’t use them correctly,” said Samantha – so Keela have produced clear guidance sheets on how they should be worn, maintained and cleaned.
Jonathan’s company, the flooring manufacturers Amtico International, has also been making PPE – because it has the capability to produce huge rolls of plastic material. However, when Amtico tried to “advertise that capability through the NHS procurement website”, said Jonathan, “[we] didn’t really get anywhere with that”.
So, instead, they started working with local schools and have now made about 75,000 visors, which have been supplied to the schools themselves, care homes and other businesses. In fact, Jonathan said that CBI members can simply ask him for a box of visors – and get one for free!
The importance of travel
Today is the start of the government’s new 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the UK. Of course, this could have a “very serious” impact on the airline and tourism industries. But Carolyn also emphasised that “there’s a massive impact on the entire economy” from measures such as this, not least because “businesses rely on people being able to travel”.
The quarantine will be reviewed in three weeks’ time. The CBI is very keen that this review is conducted seriously and with due consideration to the “broader needs of our economy”. As Carolyn put it, “It is all about the UK being able to say that it’s safe and open for business.”
Key questions we answered:
- Carolyn, what are businesses saying on the issue of PPE, and what has the CBI been doing to support them?
- The government’s guidance remains – firms that do not usually use PPE do not need to use it as part of their return to work plans.
- Instead, the priority should be implementing rigorous hygiene and social distancing measures to ensure safer workplaces. And the Health and Safety Executive has allocated an extra £14m to help support business.
- It’s important to note that face coverings are not classed as PPE. Evidence suggests that if you’re infected (but yet to develop symptoms), wearing a face covering may help mitigate the risk of you spreading the virus.
- A key issue for employers – especially now face coverings are becoming mandatory on public transport – is how to manage the storage and disposal of face coverings once employees enter the workplace.
- Some findings from our PPE survey:
- Despite the guidance, many firms are planning to use additional PPE as they reopen
- An overwhelming proportion of businesses (79%) anticipate additional PPE needs once ‘normal’ operations resume, with almost three-quarters of respondents anticipating increased demand for surgical masks and surgical gloves
- From the survey data, we expect additional demand across UK businesses could be as high as an extra 10 million pairs of gloves and 3 million surgical masks per week.
- Samantha, could you tell us about your experiences making clothing for frontline workers?
- At the beginning, we were helping frontline workers with the equipment they needed – and we worked quite hard with the NHS.
- We knew that we could manufacture items of PPE, and we'd been awarded the gown contract for the NHS
- We needed to buy extra equipment to maintain social distancing while making the PPE. We also needed things like extra tables for the canteen.
- Samantha, how have your colleagues reacted to social distancing?
- We found that some groups who are working are fairly confident and relaxed. But people that are furloughed are much more tense about the situation.
- We've done induction training to try and keep good social distancing.
- We have also supplied masks. But this is just a confidence measure. We tend to find people use them in the beginning, but they quickly move away from doing so.
- Jonathan, how have Antico adapted to the crisis?
- We are country's largest manufacturing business, so, we've managed to keep running right the way through this crisis.
- As we trade around the world, we had a little bit of forewarning because we were having to practise social distancing and careful office management in our Hong Kong operation in January and February when offices there reopened.
- We started producing some PPE because we produce quite a lot of castings.
- We started off supplying hospitals and operating theatres and people who are completely out of PPE. Now, the NHS’s procurement has got back up to speed, but we're still supplying to care homes and schools.
- So we use social distancing, PPE, isolation rooms, and temperature checking all together.
- Jonathan, how has Antico implemented government safety guidelines?
- We're gradually phasing people in and out of work in manageable chunks.
- We're able to take them through the health and safety processes to make sure they are aware. And then where appropriate, the regional official explains to them what we're doing, and we allow our employees to come up with suggestions.
- So, it's a bit of an iterative process, but it's built on the principles of how to manage a virus.
- Jonathan, what is your view on the international differences on social distancing?
- I think a lot of our government’s policies are completely confused. Fortunately, certain other countries, particularly mainland Europe, are much, much more efficient.
- I had Covid-19 in March when skiing in Austria, and I’m more tracked and traced from the Austrian authorities than anything in the UK.
- We need to up our game quite significantly if we want to start competing on the world stage, properly managing risk. We're effectively trying to operate in a variety of different guidelines.
- We are working to make distancing correspond with the UK government’s guidelines and trying to space people out wherever possible.
- Samantha, what are you doing around testing and tracing and the disposal of masks?
- We’ve put lots of measures in place.
- We’re not using disposable masks, as we don't think this is sustainable. It's not required by HSE, so we're using reusable masks.
- The big thing with masks is people don't use them correctly, and if they don’t, they’re useless. So, we have a guidance sheet that comes with the reusable masks.
- We also use barriers and clear signage, and we have canteen tables that are spaced apart.
- We are telling everyone that they have a personal responsibility to practice social distancing at work and at home.