Covid crisis should stimulate a better deal for UK makers

Jo Francis
Thursday, July 23, 2020

Just as the coronavirus situation has kept us all apart, it’s also served to bring people and organisations together.

Witness the incredible efforts by print firms of all shapes and sizes to collaborate on the production of much-needed PPE at the height of the crisis.

It’s also served to shine a bright light on some weaknesses in the UK economy that have been exposed over the past six months. Specifically, a reliance on things made elsewhere that have been badly needed over here.

The situation has resulted in a coming together of trade unions and employer organisations to champion UK manufacturing.

Unite the union launched its ‘Manufacturing Matters’ industrial strategy at the end of June, with an online event that brought together speakers from manufacturing organisation Make UK, the Food & Drink Federation, Conservative MP Greg Clark, chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds along with a contribution from print’s own Charles Jarrold, CEO at the BPIF.

Although Make UK CEO Stephen Phipson described the latest manufacturing stats as “stark”, and “the worst we’ve recorded in 30 years”, he went on to highlight some positives around potential future opportunities.

“I think through this pandemic we’ve seen the ability of really clever advanced manufacturing to switch their capacity to the national effort – what we saw in the ventilator challenges and the PPE challenges,” Phipson noted.

“It really shows the importance of a resilient manufacturing sector to respond to these sorts of challenges.”

He said that manufacturers should use the post-Covid rebuilding opportunity to “power our future through digital technology”.

“Manufacturing was already facing the fourth industrial revolution. What we need to do now is accelerate that process. Not only does that put us at the forefront of what’s going to happen in future manufacturing but it also contributes significantly to the key issues of productivity and the new green economy. It’s really vital that we grab this opportunity,” he said.

The Make UK report Responding, Resetting, Reinventing UK Manufacturing Post Covid-19 states: “Today’s challenge is to position the UK as a global leader in the global marketplace, to lead a green revolution to transition to net zero and to inspire the next generation of creators, makers and innovators.

“In addition, as we seek to recover from the current Covid-19 pandemic, the UK economy will need manufacturers to continue to step up and boost productivity, to power economic growth and to deliver shared opportunity in every region of the UK. A digital, global and green future post Covid-19 is possible, but it will require a bold, brave and new vision for our economy – one that puts manufacturers at its heart.”

Unite’s industrial strategy for manufacturing laid out a 10-point action plan and also called for a green deal for manufacturing.

“We need our whole economy to transition to one that is sustainable to meet our global environmental obligations and tackle climate breakdown. We will need to transform it to one that has equality, social justice and sustainability at its heart,” the union said.

“Manufacturing has a crucial role to play – to transition our existing industries to develop the industries of the future that will create and produce the goods that the transition of our whole society will rely upon. There is an opportunity for Britain to become a world leader, if only the government seizes that opportunity.”

Onshoring opportunity

A key area for future consideration given recent events will surely be building greater resilience into supply chains. “Many manufacturers have spoken to me about this. We’ve gone through a period of offshoring and reliance on single sourcing from far-flung places on the planet. And now people are starting to think about building risk into those supply chains,” said Phipson.

“That affords us many opportunities, one of which is onshoring in some areas where that makes sense.”

The BPIF’s Jarrold also says there has been some anecdotal evidence of print being repatriated, with the virus crisis situation definitely fostering collaboration. He is hopeful that the cataclysmic events will at least result in some positive outcomes.

“The time before this crisis seems such a long time ago, but there were some question marks about how the government was really engaging with the business community, and I think that’s gone away now,” he notes.

“I think the government are really trying to engage and they’ve definitely engaged in this process. They haven’t always done exactly what we all wanted, but they’ve listened and they’ve tried to take it on board. We will come out of this with stronger links with government and stronger relationships.”

The not-so-small matter of Brexit also looms large, and Jarrold adds: “I think with Brexit coming as well the government are keenly aware of the stress that businesses are under. I think they are, within reason, looking to see what they can do to support business at the business level – they’re not going to change Brexit or anything like that. But, obviously having put an awful lot of money into supporting the economy, their resources are going to be a little bit limited.”

Can UK manufacturers forge a new future that will help lift the whole economy up? Make UK sums up the general sentiment neatly by stating: “What we make matters.”

“What that in turn provides for our economy, communities and regions will matter even more going forward.”


Government must listen to save industry and communities

Steve Turner, Unite assistant general secretary, manufacturing

Unite has always understood the need for an interventionist government and political action to deliver a cross-departmental, integrated industrial strategy supporting the future of local communities, industries and country.

Recent events have shown this is needed now more than ever. Unite’s ‘Manufacturing Matters’ campaign is leading the way in the development of this strategy, building an alliance with industry and our communities to deliver our demand to Build Local: Buy UK at every level of our political establishment – from local councils and devolved assemblies to the Westminster government and opposition benches.

During the pandemic examples such as the urgent need for PPE and the ventilator challenge have demonstrated that our manufacturing industries remain critical for all of us. As we face the threat of climate breakdown manufacturing has a central role to play in transitioning our economy as a whole.

We have seen that government can, when necessary, intervene in our economy to help us face social challenges collectively. That lesson should not be lost from what has been a difficult and distressing time for millions of people.

Now at the beginning of what could be the severest economic slump we have ever experienced the country stands at a crossroads, with the country’s place in a globalised world uncertain. New free trade deals and the prospect of trade wars threaten to make the industrial uncertainty of Brexit a permanent feature, further destabilising our manufacturing heartlands. And of course, all of this comes after our class has already experienced the longest slump in living standards in history and spiralling wealth inequality, alongside facing the challenges of automation, artificial intelligence and other technological advances.

The 2008 financial crisis and the austerity offensive which followed tells us a recovery cannot be built on site closures, job cuts or simply trying to make work more intensive in the name of ‘competitiveness’. That is why we have called for a National Recovery Council and Regional Development Councils, not only to answer this crisis by bringing the expertise of the trade unions to the highest levels of decision making, but to influence the long-term rebuilding of manufacturing.


How should the government help industry recover?

James Cross, production director, Micropress

“Whatever the government can do in the coming months to support UK manufacturing will be crucial to help companies through the worst of the economic effects of the pandemic and retain as many jobs as possible. Moving forward it’s crucial we implement better training schemes and focus more on the new generation of workers with a clearer strategy around apprenticeships. We’d also welcome more support for the use of new technologies and the use of more efficient equipment, I think the period of lockdown has shown us all the need for a greener economy, though whether this can be achieved with cheaper foreign imports rife, is open to question.”

Lee Harvey, managing director, Bluestar Print Finishers

“As a country we should be like many other countries and try to buy our own products. I know that’s not always possible. Take the car industry, we don’t own many car manufacturers, but we do produce and make lots of cars in this country. To keep people employed we should be looking to buy cars that are made in this country and there should be incentives for us to buy. Getting back to the print trade, we are producing books at the moment for universities in this country that would normally be produced in Singapore. Why? Is it all down to cost, surely at these times we need to keep as much print in this country and stop outsourcing.”

Miles Linney, chief executive, Linney Group

“Probably for some good reasons the country has been infatuated by the service economy and financial services. It’s resulted in big divides: north-south and rich-poor. Post-Covid it’s probably made it more important for the country to think a bit more introspectively about its manufacturing base. Being a global financial capital has often been at the neglect of the manufacturing side that the nation was once heavily built on. Any chance to see that support coming back as a potential side effect of a nasty incident like Covid, might put that whole globalised vs localised at the heart of the debate. Anything that the government can do to support that is hugely welcome.”


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