Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Coronavirus is the gravest public health threat our nation has faced in generations.
It’s also correctly described by the Chancellor as an “economic emergency”. The measures announced by Rishi Sunak on Friday night represented an unprecedented package of support for the business sector, employers and employees.
While the decision to close leisure businesses such as bars, gyms and cinemas will have disappointed some, it was unquestionably the right thing to do as we attempt to slow the spread of infection.
Across sectors of business, there will have been a huge sense of relief as the Chancellor announced that the Government would cover 80 per cent of the wages of employees who are sent home, along with the deferment of VAT bills.
While economists are scrambling to model what the economic effects of the Virus may be, policy makers are having to act swiftly, and with imperfect information.
But what seems clear is that this setback will see the sharpest downturn we have ever experienced.
Indeed, it could be deep, but it is also expected to be relatively short-lived. This is in sharp contrast to the “Financial crisis” of 2008 where the shortfall was prolonged. Therefore, if the intention is to bridge what may be a deep but hopefully narrow V-shaped valley then the policy moves are right.
Now the challenge is to deliver this package of fiscal support as quickly as possible, pumping money directly to where it is needed. Let’s be clear, these measures do much more than support businesses, they are providing a lifeline to people when they need it most. Time is of the essence.
As our medical and scientific experts work tirelessly to deal with the infection, we must act with equal intent to immunise our economy from its side effects.
Here in the West Midlands this week I was made acutely aware that many businesses are facing a potentially catastrophic cashflow crisis, which has to be addressed if we are to protect the economy.
This week saw a meeting of the West Midlands Regional Economic Contingency Group, which brings together business organisations and political leaders in a forum that feeds directly to central Government.
And the message I heard from local businesses was crystal clear: businesses well beyond the hospitality sector have seen a collapse in their order books.
From our biggest firms – such as JLR, which has just announced a three-week closure of its sites – to the smallest shops, we have to protect businesses and their employees.
There was a genuine welcome for the announcements that government had already made. However, I heard two messages that I will take back to government personally:
First, the new loans and business rate holidays have got to come very, very quickly in particular to help larger businesses make their cash payments to small suppliers.
Second, it was clear that for some businesses loans are not the answer – the real issue is how we reduce the cost of their operations so they can maintain their businesses and hold on to as many people as they can through the crisis.
The pledge on Friday to defer VAT payments and cover 80 per cent of some wage costs directly addressed these concerns.
If we Conservatives are serious in our claim to be the party of business, now is the time for us to stand up and prove it – and I believe that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have done just that with their swift and bold actions.
I have confidence that the robust economy we have built in West Midlands will survive the crisis if cash is delivered to where it is needed, and I believe the people of the West Midlands have the resilience and fortitude to not only withstand it but to bounce back afterwards too.
We have faced real hardship before. From the Coventry blitz to the mass lay-offs of the Seventies and Eighties, the people of this region have shown they will always overcome challenges.
It’s already happening. Right now, community support groups are being set up by volunteers across the conurbation to help the vulnerable.
Social media is awash with local people reaching out to help their elderly neighbours and supporting the key workers who are so vital in the battle against Coronavirus.
Shopkeepers are politely restricting the sales of items to stop panic buying and ensure everyone is catered for.
This altruistic reaction comes despite the fact that people have until now found themselves pulled in two directions – should they follow advice to socially distance themselves or self-isolate, or worry about their livelihoods vanishing if they step away from the workplace.
Indeed, even after the landmark support measures announced on Friday some questions remain.
Self-employed and freelance workers have expressed concerns that they are less protected than others, and as I write this we await the Government’s response.
The West Midlands is a hotbed of self-employment, and I am confident that a response will come.
A hallmark of the cool-headed, evidence-driven leadership shown by the Prime Minister throughout this crisis has been to react to each new challenge clearly and decisively.
Now, with Friday’s measures unveiled to the relief of bosses and workers everywhere, the real challenge is in the speed of delivery. Businesses that have been told to shut their doors cannot wait too long for cash. Workers who have been sent home cannot wait too long for income.
The health authorities have shown that we can move quickly and efficiently in reaction to this crisis.
Here in the West Midlands, we have some of the best hospitals in the country and our NHS workers are already going above and beyond to hold back the outbreak.
Preparations in the UK health service have been going on at speed since the first news emerged of a viral outbreak in China, back in December.
And at local government level the West Midlands has quickly pulled together. Our councils in Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton are working through the implications of the crisis for adult social care.
Our schools are keeping their doors open to look after the children of key workers. As people stay at home, Transport for the West Midlands is introducing a restricted timetable that will ensure key workers and the vulnerable can still get around.
Across the nation, in all walks of life, we are learning that we will overcome coronavirus by working together. Now the wheels of Government must quickly hit top speed to release the funds that will protect our economy from its side effects.