Coronavirus - the third week of lockdown
For Business the coronavirus crisis has been front and centre for at least six weeks. This is Graham's view on the third week of lockdown
This month I’m thankful I’m not ill, and thankful my loved ones have been spared the outrageous misfortune of contracting Covid-19. To be consigned to a business world of video conferencing and dodgy mobile phone signals is nothing by comparison.
In fact, I will share with you my sense of pride in my daughter and my son-in-law who are fabulous public servants; one is a hospital Doctor and the other helps people with claims for Universal Benefit. Each is at a different front line in the battles against the coronavirus.
Hearing their private stories leads me to sympathise with the dilemma Government Ministers find themselves in this week; the week they need to give guidance to the public about the probable extension of the lockdown.
Thankfully, confrontational politics has been suspended (with the exception of some keyboard warriors on Twitter who have attacked Ministers and the PM with vile comments that have led to some being removed from their positions in politics and the trade unions). Ministers have been explaining policy in daily news conferences, which I have found myself addicted to. Not just me, they are watched by millions of people who can now understand the metrics of this health emergency; the testing, the hospital admissions, the regional variations and, of course, the brutal and raw number each day of those who have sadly succumbed and died.
The mantra of “stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives”, so succinctly put by the man who brought us “Get Brexit Done”, has worked. In some ways it has worked better than expected. When the PM announced the lockdown, he did want us – where possible – to go to work. But the economy has taken second place to the health emergency.
However, health emergencies that wreck the economy can lead to longer-term health problems. Mental illness, poor diet, family breakdown, domestic violence, missed appointments in hospitals for long-term conditions, a reluctance to visit the Doctor for new conditions. All these things have very serious health consequences.
According to a report in the Financial Tines on 10th April, a cabinet subcommittee paper suggested there could be 150,000 avoidable deaths as a long-term result of the lockdown. I have no medical training, so I could not offer a helpful opinion on this report.
However, as somebody on the front line of business, I have been running Executive Fellowship groups and working with my colleagues in the Institute of Directors to understand the concerns that business owners have about the way the economy is coping. The consensus view is that people in business do not want the lockdown to end prematurely if it’s not in the interests of public health and results in prolonging the crisis. There are also serious concerns about cash flow, (with many larger firms hoarding cash and unilaterally extending supplier payment terms), worries about access to emergency bank loans and a little apprehension at the possibility of glitches in the operation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (although these might be unfounded). Most businesses I have spoken to expect that by mid-May they could re-open and maintain most of their workforce, but if the return is later they express real concerns. Ministers will soon have to consider a new mantra: “stay working, protect the economy, save jobs”. Balancing that against the health advice of scientists is going to be an unenviable task.
The view from the front line of business is grim but determined. I don’t know one entrepreneur in the North East who has given up. So many of my peers and my clients have been working every hour possible to keep their businesses solvent and to come out of this emergency by being reset and ready for action.
I cannot leave my column without a word about Boris. This time last year I was driving him from Teesside to London after he gave a big speech ahead of his leadership campaign. I worked with him in the December campaign. In the time since he has won a decisive election victory, changed policies to favour regions like ours, and reshaped our Government. He was at the heart of the response to the coronavirus emergency and had been receiving plaudits and support from all sections of society before he became ill. To hear last week that a Prime Minister, who is only two months younger than me, was admitted to intensive care, brought a lump to my throat. It also made the situation seem all the more real and dangerous.
I sent him a ‘get well’ text at the weekend, his reply was typically positive. Boris is a fighter, a person of enormous energy and goodwill. That he is on the road to recovery is good news. I’m convinced that his return to Government (not too soon I hope, he should get well first) will help our country recover from this emergency all the sooner. We are still in phase one of our war with the virus, but when Boris returns so will hope and confidence. I’m grateful I haven’t had to endure his illness and feel genuine compassion for those who have. For now I’ll try to keep my business ticking over while maintaining my pride and support for the public servants who are protecting and caring for us.