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Business can end the year with its head held high

As the magnitude of Covid-19 became clear, businesses changed gear and put themselves in the service of the nation, writes Matthew Fell. | PA Images

Matthew Fell

Matthew Fell

4 min read

2020 is a year we will never forget, but among the challenges there have been plenty of positives. The brilliant work of the NHS, a rediscovered sense of community spirit, and the rehabilitation of business’ reputation.

Long before Covid-19 entered our lives, business leaders were taking action to ensure the firms they led put more emphasis on their impact in society.

At a basic level, companies create jobs and contribute taxes that help pay for vital public services such as schools, roads and hospitals.

Many are stepping up beyond that. Taking action to be more inclusive by re-thinking recruitment practices and workplace culture. Supporting local communities, for example by funding school breakfast clubs. And leading the charge on net zero, through innovation and new technologies.

But as the magnitude of Covid-19 became clear, businesses changed gear and put themselves in the service of the nation.

Their first instinct has been to prioritise people, keeping employees and customers safe.

We’ve seen a breakthrough year for flexible working, with firms helping staff juggle work, home schooling and caring responsibilities. In tandem, businesses have significantly upped the level of mental health support available for employees. Where working from home was not possible, firms acted collaboratively with government and trade unions to implement safer work guidance, re-designing workplaces to be ‘Covid secure’.

The country’s response to Covid-19 has been characterised by a sense of collaboration between all parts of business and government

As the health crisis unfolded, business proved an essential partner to the NHS and other public services. Supporting the army, firms helped stand up Nightingale hospitals in days, kitted out with technology from firms including Adey electronics and Cisco. Independent healthcare providers such as Bupa, HCA Healthcare and Transform Hospital Group boosted NHS capacity and resilience by providing beds, equipment and staff.

Tech firms including BT, Virgin Media and Microsoft have made home working at scale possible. Food producers and supermarkets kept supplies going and ramped up home deliveries. From facilities management to prisons, public sector partners like Sodexo, Capita and G4S ensured public services continued uninterrupted. Transport operators like Abellio and First Group ensured doctors, nurses and other key workers reached where they were needed. And from kitchen tables and bedrooms, financial services firms and payments providers from NatWest to Visa helped design loan schemes and new systems to support small firms, fast.

Many embraced the PPE and ventilator challenge. Flooring manufacturers produced facemasks. Gin distillers began producing hand sanitiser. Global brands such as Airbus and Siemens designed and built ventilators.

Some have kept going in the face of unfair criticism. Singling out companies who’ve stood up thousands of people at a moment’s notice to provide support in an hour of need feels misplaced. Test and Trace was built from scratch in a matter of weeks. The efforts of companies like Serco and others have helped it become the UK’s largest call centre, reaching around 3.5 million people so far in the fight against the spread of the virus. 

But it’s not all been plain sailing. Covid-19 demanded an agile approach to procurement. Both government and business learnt and adapted on the go, getting comfortable with beta products that evolve. Transparency and accountability must remain at the heart of this approach, with public trust essential for the success of public private partnerships.

Now, as Christmas nears, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Throughout the year, the UK’s world-beating life sciences sector was working tirelessly to develop Covid-19 tests and vaccines. A moment of pride as the UK became the first country to deliver the Pfizer vaccine, with Astra Zeneca and others following.

Overall, the country’s response to Covid-19 has been characterised by a sense of collaboration between all parts of business and government, A CBI/Porter Novelli study by Opinium found 76% of UK adults say it’s important for the government to use business insight when creating policy related to the economy. If we take that sense of partnership into the new year, then there really is a chance for the country to build back better.

There have been many heroes in 2020. Business too can end the year with its head held high, having recast its role in service of the nation.


Matthew Fell is chief UK policy director at CBI.

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