Navigating coronavirus

May 1, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption across the world and every business has been affected. Here, managing associate Jonny Gribben outlines some of the activity that Womble Bond Dickinson has been involved with in the North East’s manufacturing sector, which employs 126,000 people – 10.7 per cent of the region’s workforce – and produces an output of £8 billion – 15.2 per cent of the region’s total – according to the latest figures from Make UK. But the themes are similar across other sectors up and down the UK

Generally, the immediate priorities for businesses in the wake of the pandemic were to assimilate the guidance published by the Government and to understand if, and to what extent, the support measures introduced were available to them. Due to the magnitude of the situation, these initiatives were designed at speed and scale and were refined often as the situation developed rapidly.

In partnership with trade associations and clusters, such as the North East Automotive Alliance, the team at Womble Bond Dickinson provided briefings and webinars on topics including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help companies get to grips with the new, evolving landscape.

One of the primary concerns for manufacturers has been whether they can remain open for business safely. Our sector-focused approach has given us the knowledge to deliver tailored support to clients in key local industries such as chemicals and automotive. We have given guidance on the practical steps that employers can take to provide a safe working environment in the context of COVID-19, the applicable risk assessment processes and the approach being taken by the Health and Safety Executive. We have also participated in industry forums where companies have shared their approaches to the issues that they are encountering, for the benefit of their industries as a whole.

Companies in the manufacturing sector have shown an impressive ability to adapt their operations, including to produce personal protective equipment and ventilators for the NHS. We have been advising clients about the regulatory implications of these changes. It will be interesting to see whether this adaptability leads to any further, longer-term changes. For example, some companies have suffered due to an over-reliance on one or two suppliers and it may be that this experience results in greater supply chain diversity.

At the time of writing, the Government has just announced the extension of the UK lockdown
for at least another three weeks. However, restart planning is already well underway as businesses work to ensure that they can return to normal – or their ‘new normal’ – as quickly as possible at the appropriate time.

In the future, there will be further challenges to navigate. Some disputes have been put on
hold in the midst of the pandemic that may be advanced in due course, such as in relation to non-performance of contracts and attempts to rely on force majeure clauses. There will also be more opportunities to secure new business and to harness the efficiencies that companies have been driven into finding in this extraordinary operating environment. We look forward to continuing our work with businesses and trade associations to deal with these issues and move forward successfully.

Womble Bond Dickinson
For more information on how WBD is supporting businesses, contact Jonny on 0191 279 9482, jonathan.gribben@wbd-uk.com or visit: www.womblebonddickinson.com/uk/covid19

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