Home World Business ALEX BRUMMER: Lifting the Covid cloud

ALEX BRUMMER: Lifting the Covid cloud


Much has been learned about Covid-19 since the pandemic erupted in March and it is amazing that in such a relatively short period at least three vaccines are in sight.

We also have learned a great deal about the British economy.

Its reliance on services has meant that restrictions and lockdowns damaged it more than many of our competitors. 

High Street woe: In a nation of shopkeepers there has been an enormous amount of focus on the destruction of retail

But we also discovered that as soon as intrusive rules are removed, the resilience and bounce-back is phenomenal.

There may be no single ‘V’-shaped recovery but a series of ‘Vs’, each one bringing output back to a higher level. There is scarring and you only have to look at the shuttered High Street and shopping malls to see that. But it should not be permanent.

The public finances look horrifying. Latest data shows £215billion of borrowing in the first seven months of the financial year. The Government’s spending splurge is doing a job by taking up the slack left by damaged demand and keeping UK plc afloat.

There is much not to like, notably the wastage, fraud and the lack of competitive bidding identified by the National Audit Office in some admirably robust reports. 

Even if borrowing hits £420billion in the 2020-21 year, it could be a price worth paying should much of the economy remain intact and the impact on jobs prove less harrowing than some earlier shocking predictions.

In a nation of shopkeepers, there has been an enormous amount of focus on the destruction of retail.

Upmarket Jaeger and no-frills Peacocks, both owned by Edinburgh Woollen Mill, are among the latest casualties. Every job lost is a tragedy and no one wants to see more empty shops in our neighbourhoods.

Reality is that both these brands have been in and out of insolvency over a number of years and have been hanging on by their fingertips. 

The retailers who have suffered most in the pandemic are those which underinvested, ignored online and fell into bad ownership, whether it be private equity or Icelandic banks.

It has been only too easy for retailers to blame everyone else except themselves. Sure, upward-only rent reviews (the landlords are paying for those now), business rates, a rising living wage (shop workers have been notoriously underpaid) and energy bills inflated by green levies have all played a part.

The fact remains that there have been as many retail winners from the pandemic- induced slump as losers.

Next is often cited as best in class because it had maintained a strong bricks-and-mortar presence while building an enviable online and click-and-collect model.

But not all the survivors owe it to online. Primark bled cash in early lockdown but its low-price, fashion-conscious High Street model held up well.

M&S may have dropped out of the FTSE 100 and lost its status as the nation’s favourite retailer, but a combination of its food delivery deal with Ocado and smarter layout in its stores, requiring food shoppers to traverse racks of clothing and homewares, should see it through the pandemic and out safely on the other side. 

, Daily Echoed

Future: M&S’s new ways of operating should help it work its way out of the pandemic

There are also countless smaller retail groups and independent shops which will spring back by carefully managing cash flows and taking advantage of Covid tax breaks.

In spite of a collective negativity, the data offers encouragement. Retail sales were 6.8 per cent above pre-Covid levels in October, demonstrating how quickly consumer confidence is restored when the economy is brought out of its induced coma.

The month-on-month gain was 1.1 per cent with households goods – a winner in lockdown – surging 3.1 per cent. 

There was no real repetition of the panic buying of the spring in spite of trolleys packed with toilet paper and other standbys. 

The underlying trend to watch is sale of goods online, which jumped to 28.5 per cent in October from 27.6 per cent in September.

Even if internet sales should shrink when the nightmare is over, the die has been cast. When you can buy a heavily discounted bottle of Isle of Islay Laphroaig, delivered to your door in two hours, why would one navigate crowded aisles and checkouts?

Consumer confidence is at a low ebb, according to the latest GfK survey. Business shutdowns and working from home has that effect.

But as the first shards of after-Covid and after-Brexit light are cast, we should not under-estimate the capacity of the UK’s supple economy to rebound.

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