More Government measures to help firms 'weather the storm' of coronavirus Covid-19 announced by Business Secretary Alok Sharma

A slew of red tape will be axed to help firms "weather the storm" of the coronavirus Covid-19, the Government announced today.

Saturday, 28th March 2020, 4:18 pm
Updated Saturday, 28th March 2020, 4:46 pm
Britain's Business Secretary and Minister for COP26 Alok Sharma arrives at number 10 Downng Street in central London on March 17, 2020, ahead of a meeting of the Cabinet. - Britain stepped up its response to coronavirus, recommending household isolation, home-working and an end to mass gatherings to try to stem an accelerating outbreak. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Business Secretary Alok Sharma, taking today's daily coronavirus briefing, said the disease brought an "unprecedented challenge" and said he appreciates how hard it is for businesses to cope.

He says telling people to stay home comes with a "real cost" to their firms and employees.

"We said we would deliver for you, doing whatever it takes," he said.

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Mr Sharma pledged to make it easier for firms to make face masks and sanitising hand gel "in a matter of days" by cutting red tape.

He said: "We are also introducing a range of measures to boost the supply of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, to protect frontline NHS staff."

He said testers of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been told to put the products at the "front of the queue" to ensure medics have more supplies.

He said the Office for Product Safety and Standards has written to testing experts at notified bodies.

"We've asked them to prioritise testing of any new PPE supply as a matter of priority," he said.

"We want to put PPE testing to the front of the queue."

Competition laws were relaxed yesterday so supermarkets can work together in ways they couldn't before, such as sharing delivery vans, Mr Sharma also said.

And he announced changes to insolvency rules to allow businesses "greater flexibility as they face the current crisis".

He said: "It is crucial when the crisis passes, as it will, we are ready to bounce back," he said, as he detailed measures to help businesses "emerge intact the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic".

"These measures will give those firms extra time and space to weather the storm and be ready when the crisis ends whilst ensuring creditors get the best return possible in the circumstances," he continued.

The new rules will allow companies undergoing restructuring to continue access to supplies and raw materials.

And, he said, there would be a temporary suspension of wrongful trading provisions for company directors to remove the threat of personal liability during the pandemic, which will apply retrospectively from March 1.

"However, to be clear, all of the other checks and balances that help to ensure directors fulfil their duties properly will remain in force."

Companies required to hold annual general meetings will be be able to do so flexibly in a matter compatible with public health guidance, Mr Sharma said.

"This might include postponing or holding the AGM online, or by phone using only proxy voting," he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a video conference call this morning and continues to lead the Government's efforts to combat Covid-19 as he self-isolates after testing positive for the illness, Mr Sharma added.

He said: "What this has reminded us is that no one is immune, and that is precisely why we ask people to follow the Government advice in terms of staying at home where they are able to do that.

"We want to make sure we protect the NHS and ultimately save lives."

The number of Covid-19 deaths in the UK jumped by 260 today, rising from 759 to 1,019, with the number of confirmed cases rising to 17,089. Last week, it was 5,018.

There are 141 confirmed cases in Lancashire, nine in Blackpool, and seven in Blackburn with Darwen. Testing is only done in hospital, however, so the true number will be much higher.

Prof Stephen Powis, National Medical Director of NHS England, said the NHS was working "incredibly hard" to increase its bed capacity.

He said the focus was firstly on London, where coronavirus has spread quicker than in other parts of the country.

"We are not at capacity yet within London, but beds are being opened all the time to increase that extra surge capacity," he said.

"In the first instance we are using theatres and recovery areas; those are areas in hospitals where anaesthetic machines, ventilators, are already used for surgery and can be readily adapted to take critically ill patients."

He added: "That's almost doubling the capacity that we have already. We are not using it at the moment, but clearly the number of patients is increasing each day."

When asked about the spread of the disease, Prof Powis said: "Clearly there has been a big increase in deaths today."

But he echoed the words of Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, saying: "If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic."

He added: "It is early at the moment and the scientists who are working with the government to model what we can expect are of course adjusting their predictions now as we start to see the actuality of the epidemic in the UK, rather than what we believed might have happened a few weeks ago."

Prof Powis insisted getting personal protective equipment to healthcare staff was an "absolute priority" as he detailed the numbers of products sent out.

More than 170 million of the "very highest level masks" have been dispatched "in the last couple of weeks," he said.

He added 40 million gloves had been sent in recent days, as well as 25 million face masks and 30 million aprons.

"So vast numbers going out," he said.

"We're strengthening the supply chain every day to ensure that every organisation gets the equipment that they need, that's an absolute priority for us."

Prof Powis added: "If we do reduce the deaths below what we initially thought, I want to be absolutely clear, that won't be because we are somehow lucky.

"It won't be because somehow the virus is acting in this country differently from any other country, it will be because every citizen in this country, the British public, have complied with the instructions the Government has given based on the best scientific evidence to reduce the transmission of the disease.

"We can beat this virus, we can reduce the number of deaths, but only if we reduce the spread and the transmission."

He continued: "If we are to ensure that we remain within NHS capacity, and we are extending capacity all the time, every one of us has a part to play.

"We know that can work."