British industry has thrown its weight behind the fight against Covid-19 in a wartime-style effort to churn out protective masks, hand sanitiser and medical ventilators.
While most retailers have been forced to shut down to contain the pandemic, a raft of firms across the country, in sectors from manufacturing to fashion, are setting up emergency operations that often involve striking out into unfamiliar territory.
The most high-profile example has been the effort by industrial powerhouses to manufacture 30,000 medical ventilators, with household names such as Airbus, Dyson, Ford and Rolls-Royce all pitching in with expertise and resources. The banking group HSBC moved to help ventilator manufacturers by offering fast-track loan applications, cheaper interest rates and extended repayment terms.
A host of companies are focusing on limiting contagion and protecting NHS workers. The chemicals firm Ineos, owned by Britain’s third richest man, Sir James Ratcliffe, is racing to build two hand sanitiser factories in the space of 10 days. The UK’s largest private company hopes the plants – one near Middlesbrough and one in Germany – will dispense 1m bottles per month and supply the NHS for free.
Distilleries with much smaller capacity are drawing on expertise in making the alcohol required for effective sanitiser. They include the craft beer firm BrewDog, which has a distilling business making so-called Brewgel, as well as the British Honey Company and gin makers such as Bristol-based Psychopomp, 58 Gin in London and Dundee’s Verdant Spirits.
Fashion retailers have weighed in with support to make protective equipment for the public and for medical workers. This strand of work has been particularly evident among the fashion houses of continental Europe, where Italy’s Armani and Prada, the Spanish chain Zara and Yves Saint Laurent are all making surgical masks.
The government-owned Royal Mint, in Llantrisant, south Wales, is making medical visors for the NHS after developing a successful prototype to help protect frontline care workers. The first batch is already in use at the nearby Royal Glamorgan hospital.
Carousel Lights, from Surrey, said it was making “protective sneeze screens” that would be sold at cost price to GP surgeries, pharmacies, care homes, shops and anyone else who needs to interact safely with the public.
Efforts to harness the combined power of British business have been compared to the collaborative undertaking that helped make Spitfires during the second world war.
Josh Hardie, the deputy director general of the CBI, said: “The need for business heroes has rarely been greater. Firms of all sizes and sectors have been bolstering the national efforts of the government and NHS in these testing times. By looking after their employees, combating medical shortages and supporting vital companies across the economy, firms are stepping up. We are all in this together.”
Some companies are pitching in not by regearing their supply chains but by donating what they already have. The over-50s holiday firm Saga has reportedly offered two dormant cruise ships as floating hospitals, while the London-based Brompton Bicycles said it would donate 200 of its foldable bikes to NHS workers trying to avoid the risk of infection on public transport. Key workers in services such as the NHS, police and fire services can also rent a car for £5 a day under a special deal from Europcar.
The restaurant chain Leon is coordinating the delivery of free daily hot meals to NHS critical care staff, backed by a crowdfunding campaign that is led by the acting couple Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory, along with the comic Matt Lucas.
In the drinks world, the Danish brewer Carlsberg has donated £11m to scientific research on Covid-19, while London-listed Diageo, the owner of Guinness and Smirnoff, is giving £1m to funds that support hospitality workers.
Even football clubs are deploying their resources while the season is suspended. Chelsea FC has opened up its hotels to NHS staff, while Liverpool FC has launched an emergency food bank appeal. The retailer B&M is donating up to £1m to food banks.
A combined fleet of nearly 24,000 vehicles from more than 700 logistics depots has been offered to the government free of charge to help distribute critical medical and food supplies, according to the Association of Pallet Networks.
While firms around the world are volunteering, lawmakers in the US have called for wartime legislation to force companies to help out, amid concerns about a shortage of ventilators and protective gear. Democrats are calling on Donald Trump to dust off the Defence Production Act, which can compel companies to make particular products. Such is the scale of the coronavirus crisis that even the world’s biggest economy is set to be placed on a war footing.