I’ve spent the last 22 years delving into the murkier corners of big business for my Your Problems column. It can be dispiriting work. The daily laments from customers have persuaded me that if corporate Britain has a conscience, it’s been smothered by terms and conditions that stack the odds in favour of traders. When companies have bestirred themselves to right a wrong, it’s because the prospect of a headline persuaded them.
The coronavirus crisis has exposed the essence behind the glossy PR. While some firms – such as Sports Direct and Wetherspoons – may appear to have been ruthless in attempts to safeguard their profits, big-name brands from fashion labels to distilleries have diverted stocks and skills to helping combat the pandemic. And while insurance companies have raced to rewrite their terms and conditions to avoid payouts, small traders, whose income has dried up, are finding inventive ways to support local communities.
When I put out a call for examples of altruism in adversity, my inbox was transformed from protests to plaudits.
Here are some of the heroes who are turning a crisis into an opportunity to serve.
Companies from airlines to boat hire have seen business evaporate in the space of a fortnight, but some are deploying their idle fleets at their own expense to provide relief and respite.
Tour operator Barnes Coaches has mobilised its eight minibuses to run free errands for those self isolating. The firm, which faces a dismal 100th birthday this year, will dispatch drivers anywhere within its usual pick-up area, which stretches 50 miles from Cirencester to Aldermaston, to deliver food and prescriptions.
“Our income has gone to zero almost overnight, but we’re a family firm and we always put people first,” says manager Ross McKay. “Our first call was from a lady with cancer who needed urgent medicine. The pharmacy had shut, so her prescription needed to be transferred to another one, which involved a lot of phoning. But we got it to her within the hour.”
When bookings for canal boat holidays vanished, Norbury Wharf, near Stafford, decided to offer its boats for free to key workers needing to self-isolate. “Nobody needs that sort of break more than the people trying to keep us safe – doctors, nurses and ambulance staff especially. And if they have to isolate, it makes sense to get away from everything for a time,” says director David Ray.
“It is probably easier on a boat than anywhere else and you’ll be seeing the countryside like never before. All anyone has to do is call our office and we will happily book them in, subject to availability, even the next day.”
The wedding industry has taken one of the biggest hits as it nears its peak season. Those businesses that have insurance are unlikely to be covered for a pandemic and some face ruin. However, a number are still trying to help couples who have had to postpone or downsize their nuptials.
Holly Winter, a bridal and prom dress designer, is offering to lend struggling brides sample dresses for free. “I’ve spent the last year creating samples for the new season and invested thousands of pounds in advertising, photoshoots and exhibitions which will now come to nothing,” she says. “To make something positive from this, brides can borrow my samples. Contact me and we can chat about what might fit. I can post it to them and they send it back afterwards.”
Anna Lewis specialises in wedding cakes. Faced with surplus ingredients after last-minute cancellations, she is baking cupcakes and macaroons to send to key workers and strangers who are self-isolating.
“I started the business last year and this was going to be my big year, with 15 weddings booked, but it’s all collapsed overnight and my cash flow is gone,” she says. “I took cupcakes to the local paramedic station and to Sainsbury’s staff after seeing how downtrodden and broken they are by the rudeness of some customers. I baked cakes for two people self-isolating on their birthdays. Now butter’s hard to get hold of I’m using my sugar stocks to make macaroons for three local hospitals.”
Wedding photographer Berni Palumbo has also seen her new business collapse. She is now giving free interactive photography tutorials for beginners on Facebook, and more than 100 are taking part. She has prepared a calendar of themes and delivers lessons in English and Italian. “I work from home and suffer from depression, so I know what it’s like to struggle,” she says. “This is a time to give and it’s giving me motivation.”
When the British footwear and accessories brand Kurt Geiger was forced to close its 70 UK stores it pledged 55 gift cards worth £100 each to every intensive care unit in cities where it has a shop. It has also asked its 2,500 store staff to volunteer for community initiatives run by Age UK while they remain on the payroll. “It’s clear that community life and extra acts of kindness will help build invaluable support in this unprecedented time, particularly for the vulnerable and isolated,” says chief executive Neil Clifford, who is suspending his salary until the stores reopen. “We will be actively helping our teams to play their part in supporting those most in need within their local areas.”
The company will gift a pair of shoes daily to customers who are demonstrating kindness in their community via its Instagram channel @kurtgeiger and give NHS workers a 50% discount when lockdown is lifted.
Food and drink
A graduate startup that produces an energy drink is sending free crates to those in critical roles across the country and donating profits from its online sales to NHS charities.
XITE Energy has delivered nearly 2,000 cans. “We have the Bristol Royal infirmary just down the road, so dropped some crates of XITE to them,” says co-founder Oliver Bennett. “It got us thinking – we should send crates to as many key workers as we can across the UK to give them a pick-me-up.”
Meanwhile, farmer Jerome Challen, who runs a mail order company, Challen’s Chicks, is supplying staff at his local hospital with 600 free eggs each week. “Doctors and nurses were coming off long shifts to find supermarket shelves stripped so I thought I’d give them something nutritious to take home and cook,” he says.
London-based restaurant group Berber & Q decided to keep their employees in jobs by raising funds to cook meals for staff at two local hospitals. Their GoFundMe appeal has so far raised more than £35,000, which funds labour and ingredients.
While pubs have closed, brewer Wadworth has opened an online local to keep community spirits up. The Henry streams live music from local musicians, a weekly quiz, and workouts and cooking sessions.
UK government support for workers and businesses during the coronavirus crisis
Direct cash grants for self-employed people, worth 80% of average profits, up to £2,500 a month. There are similar wage subsidies for employees.
Government to back £330bn of loans to support businesses through a Bank of England scheme for big firms. There are loans of up to £5m with no interest for six months for smaller companies.
Taxes levied on commercial premises will be abolished this year for all retailers, leisure outlets and hospitality sector firms.
Britain’s smallest 700,000 businesses eligible for cash grants of £10,000. Small retailers, leisure and hospitality firms can get bigger grants of £25,000.
Government to increase value of universal credit and tax credits by £1,000 a year, as well as widening eligibility for these benefits.
Statutory sick pay to be made available from day one, rather than day four, of absence from work, although ministers have been criticised for not increasing the level of sick pay above £94.25 a week. Small firms can claim for state refunds on sick pay bills.
Local authorities to get a £500m hardship fund to provide people with council tax payment relief.
Mortgage and rental holidays available for up to three months.
Private parking operators
Parking companies are possibly the most reviled sector in my postbag, issuing enormous bills for tiny infringements. Even they are showing signs of a soul, however, by pledging free parking to NHS workers.
Private parking enforcement agents, those traditional bogeymen, are to help marshal traffic and manage queues at supermarkets and other essential outlets. Meanwhile, NHS workers who register with the parking platform YourParkingSpace will be given a unique code enabling them to reserve spaces in nearly 950 car parks throughout the country. There are plans to extend the scheme to other key services workers, and the number of participating car parks should increase.
Hopefully, I won’t be hearing from doctors and nurses who have, nonetheless, been nabbed by parking enforcement vigilantes.
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