Coronavirus: contagion over contagion

Jo Francis
Wednesday, March 11, 2020

‘When China sneezes the world catches a cold’. It’s abundantly clear that the global spread of coronavirus COVID19 is already affecting the day-to-day lives of plenty of people in the UK, and it looks like the impact is only going to increase in the near-term – the government was poised to move to the ‘delay’ stage of tackling the virus as this issue of Printweek went to press.

That could include school closures, banning large events, discouraging the use of public transport, and encouraging people to work from home.

The impact on the printing industry is already being felt. The London Book Fair was cancelled, and Fespa Global Print Expo due to take place at the end of this month has been postponed.

Printers specialising in work for exhibitions and events have seen jobs cancelled, as have those printing for customers in badly-hit sectors such as travel.

After the prolonged period of Brexit uncertainty a worldwide crisis is about as welcome as someone else’s soggy tissue.

A Printweek reader poll (see page 12) produced results that some may find surprising, with just 43% of respondents actively taking steps to mitigate the possible issues.

However, some print bosses are taking the threat very seriously indeed. “We’ve put in place stricter hygiene advice and controls, new policies around the virus advising staff, and new visitor policies to our premises,” says one managing director.

“We’ve also deep cleaned all areas and consulted our key suppliers about their plans. It might all seem over-the-top, but the potential impact is existential so we’re taking no risks.”

Zero hours contracts and the boom in the UK’s gig economy have also caused concerns that workers who don’t get sick pay will continue to come to work even if they’re ill. This could result in printers adopting practices used at Chinese factories as that country battled to control the outbreak, such as temperature tests on workers.

“Equally, if we say ‘you can be paid for all sick leave’ then we’re giving the green light for everyone to go home,” notes one boss.

And at a practical level, working from home is not an option if your employee is supposed to be running a press or binding line.

The BPIF has issued guidance on business best practice in dealing with the situation, and has set up a new email hotline to deal with member queries.

“All businesses are in some way or another now affected by the developing situation, and we are here to help share advice as best possible,” says Anaïs Bellemans, head of marketing.

Key suppliers to the industry have mobilised to minimise potential disruption, while also flagging that supplies could be disrupted. Ink giants Sun Chemical and Flint Group have both issued statements explaining their contingency planning.

And then there’s paper. With so much paper imported to the UK, major merchants are on high alert: “The situation concerning the coronavirus continues to develop at a pace and we continue to monitor the situation, acting on the best advice and guidelines issued by the UK government,” says Premier Paper group marketing director David Jones. “In addition we can reassure customers that we are in close contact with all suppliers, and in particular, those who operate in affected regions, and will be guided by the advice that these suppliers are receiving from their regional and national governments.”

He says Premier currently has 40,000 tonnes of paper in stock across its network together with wharf stock arrangements with a number of key suppliers, where 60 days of extra buffer stock is held for immediate call off.

Elliott Baxter (EBB) says that it anticipates “minimal to no impact” on its ability to deliver at present. “We continue to have very high stocks of product throughout our network of warehouses. None of our facilities or any of our supplier facilities are currently in a quarantined area.”

Perhaps the biggest danger is, as one Printweek reader noted, the fear factor: “If everyone carries on like this the economic impact will be massive.”

Sensible precautions need to be balanced with a sense of perspective.

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