Watch the webinar
Today’s webinar was all about the practicalities of the return to work for businesses. Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI was joined for the discussion by Sarah Munby, Director-General of Business Sectors at BEIS and Alex Vaughan, CEO at Costain Group PLC.
These were the five key points we covered:
- Financial support for business
- The importance of iterative policy-making
- Workplace safety: what can we learn from businesses already back in operation?
- Understanding PPE
- The week ahead.
Financial support for business
The task at the top of Carolyn’s agenda for this week is to seek information from government about what the job retention scheme (JRS) will look like going forward. “What I’m hearing from business is a real clamour for fine detail about how scheme will evolve,” said Carolyn. Businesses, particularly from the Federation of Small Businesses, want to know whether the introduction of partial furlough measures can be brought forward before August, while companies in the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors are concerned about the potential introduction of an employer contribution to the JRS, particularly those businesses whose revenues have ceased entirely under lockdown.
As the furlough scheme winds down over the next few months, struggling businesses will need to look for alternative financial support. However, the government-backed Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) has seen relatively limited take-up, with only £360 million lent so far.
But where loans schemes were “flashing red” two weeks ago, there has been improvement according to Carolyn. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) is looking more successful with a 50% approval rate for applications and £6 billion lent. The “bounce back” loans of up to £50,000 for small businesses have proven “enormously popular” with £8.3 billion lent. Although banks are “concerned about the rate of bad debt we will see on loans,” noted Carolyn.
The importance of iterative policy-making
On the call this morning we had Sarah Munby, Director-General of Business Sectors at BEIS. This conversation was a moment to discuss the effectiveness of the 50 pages of business guidance issued by the government last week, which Sarah had played a part in preparing. “Confidence is everything in terms of a successful restart,” said Carolyn. The documents issued by BEIS have gone a long way to ensuring that confidence. “BEIS has done terrific job on this and been highly collaborative,” she said.
Part of the success of the guidance has been the continual feedback loop between business and government to build and develop policy. The speed of change in the Covid-19 crisis has required that policy be made at a much quicker pace. “Generally we would aspire to get things pretty right and then do them. But this hasn’t been the approach in this crisis. The approach has been to get things good enough and do them because there isn’t time to perfect everything before launch,” said Sarah.
The process of refining policy has relied on feedback. “Things get better with each step, said Sarah.” She also hinted that although this “iterative process” had been in some ways “forced on us by the crisis” the government may take some lessons forward about the value of incorporating such feedback in policymaking.
Workplace safety: what can we learn from businesses already back in operation?
Construction businesses like Costain Group have been operating throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Alex Vaughan, CEO of Costain, joined the webinar to share some of his insights about how best to manage safe working conditions for employees.
To Alex’s mind, the most crucial factor was trust. The company needed to ensure that it had risk assessments and safe operating procedures in place, but then it needed to communicate to employees how those procedures would work and how employees would be protected.
“We did a lot of work making sure that our staff could understand what it was we were going to do to keep them safe,” said Alex.
In practical terms some things have had to change. Fewer workers are permitted on sites so that staff can practice social distancing, the company has also increased the number of welfare facilities to ensure that workers can listen to safety briefings and take lunch breaks at a safe distance from one another. Costain is using a system of “family”or “bubble” teams to ensure that workers who have to work in close proximity are not mixing with new groups all the time. Different project sites have required different thinking: the approach for a project refurbishing an underground station is different to that needed for roadworks spanning 50 miles of highway, said Alex.
Although the business is currently operating at 70% of its usual capacity, the company was seeing small increments in productivity as they incorporated different technology solutions into their work. “We will learn to adapt. We all know that this is an environment we’re going to be working in for a substantial amount of time. Therefore it’s beholden on us as good businesses to innovate and adapt and get ourselves back.”
We learned from Alex that PPE is not a panacea for protecting workers. Wearing masks on construction sites, for example, is not practical due to safety concerns.
Much more important for most businesses are distancing measures, a point that was made by Sarah: “For the vast majority of people social distancing, barriers, fixed teaming are much more important safety measures than PPE. Of course people should carry on wearing PPE that they use to manage other kinds of risks, but PPE is not the frontline of defence in protecting you against Covid.”
Sarah explained that in some instances, PPE can put you at greater danger of infection: most people do not know how to safely put on and remove PPE for example, while the false sense of confidence given by gloves can make people more relaxed about touching objects and then they go on to touch their faces.
In jobs where repeated exposure to people is impossible to avoid, businesses will have to make a decision about whether PPE is a net benefit or a net harm for employees. In such cases, adequate training and well-fitting PPE is important. “Bad PPE is worse than no PPE,” said Sarah.
The week ahead
As the session drew to a close, Carolyn summarised with the three main points of focus for her in the week ahead.
- Practical needs for the restart: Transport is one of the most pressing issues for the restart. This week the CBI will be running roundtables with businesses on behalf of the Department for Transport to work out how public transport can get up and running.
- JRS: The next stage of the JRS has been set in motion. Businesses need answers on what that will look like by the end of May.
- Recovery: We need to keep looking ahead to the next phase beyond the restart. Deep thinking about the recovery and the infrastructure and skills we will need has to start now.
Key questions we answered:
- Sarah, how do you think the government can support a sensible, staggered restart?
- The issues of transport and education both highlight the challenge we are facing to reopen the economy – business is just one element of the picture.
- We are trying to come up with solutions that address every consideration, in tandem.
- There is no magic solution to make the transport system work on lower density, as will be required. So, there is a key role for businesses to play in making sure that those staff who can work from home, do so.
- To give you an idea of the process required to give people clarity on timetables – let’s say we wanted to announce that we are going to reopen the economy in full in one month’s time. To do that, we would have to take the disease data, one month in advance, and project what is going to happen. This is inherently hard to do. You cannot afford the risk of being wrong.
- That is the balancing act we are dealing with in government – giving people lots of notice versus not taking steps now that are proven to be wrong later and require backtracking.
- Can you provide an overview of the work that BEIS have been doing?
- I want to reflect on the support schemes the government have implemented in response to this crisis.
- Usually, when we develop policy, we always aim to create policy that gets it right. With our support schemes in this context, we simply aimed for policies that were ‘good enough’. That is because there simply wasn’t the time to consider every possible risk or gap to the policy. Speed was everything as businesses needed our support urgently.
- I would say that our policies should be viewed as quilt of patchwork, being filled in as time develops.
- Business feedback is really valuable to us and helps us evolve our support schemes, making them more comprehensive, more intellectually consistent, and more effective.
- Alex, how have Costain been reopening?
- The government working with businesses have really helped the construction industry get back to work. When Covid-19 arrived, we all paused bar those who could work remotely.
- The Construction Leadership Council has a government representative on it. This helped ensure that the group was able to work with decision-makers to develop our safe operating procedures. The government then endorsed the procedures and that gave a green light, within a framework, for firms in the industry to continue working.
- We are in industry that is used to developing risk assessments, so we were able to adapt what we already use.
- Trust was crucial. We did a lot of work making sure that our staff could understand what we were going to do to keep them safe. It was crucial that those staff could go home to their families and explain clearly what was being done to keep them safe.
- In terms of reducing the pressure on public transport, we were able to collaborate with London Zoo and use their car parking capacity to enable us to bring workers into London without putting pressure on the transport system.
- What measures are Costain implementing on PPE, and what are your overall working levels currently?
- Regarding PPE, the safe operating procedures are very clear. We do not use facemasks on construction sites. We are very clear on social distancing. We put staff through behavioural training. We also mark areas and put barriers in place.
- For anyone who does need to use public transport, we are supplying them with masks and asking them to wear them. This is, effectively, a measure to build confidence as we understand the evidence on the effectiveness of them is mixed.
- We are at about 70% of capacity. Every one of our projects has restarted. Regarding our productivity levels, we are at about 70% of where we would normally expect to be. This is due to social distancing measures being implemented.
- This means that projects will take a bit longer. We are learning more and more every day about how we can increase our productivity.
- On PPE, people are looking for detail on what kind of equipment is necessary. Can we expect BEIS guidance on this? And is it true that there is going to be a Covid-secure kitemark for businesses and venues?
- The kitemark question has been discussed internally. We don’t have a concrete plan at this moment.
- On PPE, we have been clear in the guidance. We don’t expect PPE to be a core part of a risk management strategy for Covid-19.
- In the case of Covid-19, PPE is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it may protect you but on the other hand it may add risk. Gloves could protect you as you don’t touch things that are infected. But that instruction means we are relying on people to take their gloves off safely, and there is a risk that we give them a false sense of confidence that can lead to other damaging behaviours such as touching their faces. This issue also applies to masks.
- Social distancing, barriers and fixed teams are more important safety measures than PPE.
- There are some industries where repeated exposure to multiple people is unavoidable. It then becomes a debate of whether PPE is beneficial or harmful. I would say it is beneficial when you have a workforce of people trained in how to use it. In this case, bad PPE is worse than no PPE.
- At BEIS, are you anticipating that you are going to have to take a more sectoral approach to your support schemes as we come out of this crisis?
- Economy-wide schemes are the easiest ones to get out of the door fast.
- While different sectors were affected differently, we knew that this virus impacted everyone significantly, so it was easier to develop support schemes that addressed some common issues that every business faced.
- We need to provide more sectoral based help in the future. Once you start doing this, you need a very clear definition of who is and isn’t in that sector.
- Running the JRS by sector for example is very difficult to do in practice. It is not as simple as taking the tools we have and switching them on or off by sector.