As the UK enters yet another week of lockdown, it’s difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel. New waves of the Covid-19 pandemic have sent us deeper inside out homes with sobering thoughts of the economic fallout. Positives seem thin on the ground, yet the past few weeks have seen some remarkable transformations as organisations across all sectors rally to meet the needs of the frontline. Changes that would normally have taken years in the pipeline have happened in a matter of weeks – even days.
In recent years many businesses experienced rapid growth as technology opened up new opportunities and new markets, while others found themselves in deep water long before the virus hit. Yet the fourth industrial revolution was moving at a fairly leisurely pace in the UK. In daily life, our music systems got a bit fancier in ways most of us didn’t quite understand and began ‘talking’ to our other household devices. Despite many elements of ‘big change’ being here, the catalysing factor was missing – until Covid-19 hit our shores.
Faced with a sudden and urgent need, the UK has done what it does best; mobilising a national ‘rapid response’ that’s a force to be reckoned with. No sooner had the crisis been declared than both public and private sector organisations began to adapt and innovate solutions. This was helped significantly by a government strategy that not only recognised the need to protect our economy and national institutions, but also to empower them to work in agile ways that could keep up with the rapid pace of the contagion.
As the Covid-genome morphed, so did British business. With only 8,000 ventilators in UK hospitals, companies like Airbus, Mclaren and Dyson turned their technology to the task of making up the deficit. The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium will see these firms working to manufacture thousands of ventilators in the coming weeks, with over 4,000 already donated to the international effort to treat coronavirus, as well as supplying the NHS.
Responding to the desperate need, UK distilleries started producing free sanitiser for both public and medical use. Independent brewer BrewDog began developing alcohol-based sanitiser last month. Founder James Watt said: “The production of sanitiser is completely new for us; we are working closely with the NHS to understand how we can best meet their requirements for clinical care.” The company has already given 100,000 bottles of sanitiser to local groups and charities.
British American Tobacco, the maker of brands including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges, has turned its vast resources to developing a coronavirus vaccine using tobacco plants. The company says it has cloned a portion of the genetic sequence of Covid-19 and developed a potential antigen. David O’Reilly, director of scientific research at BAT, commented: “Vaccine development is challenging and complex work, but we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform.”
The government has pledged £20m for ambitious technologies to build UK resilience following the outbreak of the virus. The call-out urges British businesses across key industries to find new ways to support productivity in sectors ranging from delivery services, food manufacturing, retail & transport and, of course, the NHS, where the Covid-19 pandemic is sparking a digital transformation after decades of inertia.
In the past two weeks automated systems experts DrDoctor has fast-tracked the development of digital tools that allow hospitals to broadcast changes to clinics at volume. They’ve also produced a remote consultation tool to allow people to reach their GPs by video or phone. Healthcare experts are optimistic that changes such as these herald the start of a new phase for the service: “We’ve been talking about this for two decades and no one has been able to make a decision about anything,” said one, “And in the last two weeks, decisions have been made. Now suddenly, instantly, it’s happening”.
Throughout history, periods of major transformation have followed mass social disruption as new ways of thinking re-set the status quo. The business sector tends to rely on competitive commerce to drive the market forward, meaning that innovation is often siloed. As these barriers come down, businesses are collectively focused on combating the Covid-19 virus, with this synergy already producing radical and positive outcomes.
In the coming months, technology and research will be pushed to their very limits, businesses will adapt to new ways of thinking and working, and people will discover skills and reserves they didn’t know they had. It’s difficult to see how our social, political and economic landscape will look on the other side, but many of the things we discover during the accelerated learning curve of the Covid-19 pandemic will be taken forward. The innovation, the revolutionising effects of rapid change and the deeper lessons we learn will all remain, and there won’t be any going back.
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