Some reflections on the impact of COVID-19 in Bristol

James Durie
Chief Executive - Bristol Chamber & Initiative | Business West
26th June 2020

I was recently asked by Business Leader to share some of my personal reflections on the coronavirus outbreak in Bristol. Reposted below is my interview with them.

The last few months have been unprecedented – what have been the most vivid moments for you?

Well I think the first 2-3 weeks of lockdown were for me the most vivid. I remember a sense of bewilderment tinged with a degree of fear, which I think we were all feeling a bit between lockdown on 23 March and through into April, on both a personal and business level as things felt they had been turned upside down in a way and a rate of speed no one seemed to have expected. 

As lockdown measures came into effect (and trying to digest the implications of announcement after announcement from government) there was the worry over simple but important things like whether or not home broadband and our own IT systems and internal processes would stand up for our own 200 staff to be able to work from home, as well as of course for all our members for what was an unknown period of time ahead. More fundamentally would the healthcare and food supply and distribution systems be able to cope and pivot to the vast majority of people operating from home. There was worry over how long this thing would go on for, how to protect ourselves, our colleagues our friends and families with a potential public health tidal wave about to hit us.

On a personal level, living in a beautiful place in North Somerset on the edge of Bristol, it felt so incongruous that such a terrible thing driven by nature was unfolding across the world, whilst at the same time our incredible British spring was springing nature back into life after the cold, grey winter months, and the weather was so beautiful, yet we were all stuck at home feeling fearful of what lay ahead.

In those few weeks, we were put in a situation that we had to get our heads around fast and it’s a moment in time I think few of us will ever forget.

How have Bristol leaders reacted to the situation?

It has been truly inspiring to see how resilient we are as a business community but also as a city community - when something like this hits you, it tests every facet of how we live and work.

Some truly remarkable individuals, such as Andy Street, Sue Turner, Zara Nanu and James Freeman to name just four who I believe stepped up to the plate to help do what they felt they and the organisations they help run could do to support and protect key workers and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There are many, many more.

But also, to see the Gold Command across the public health, police, councils and other agencies swing into action with rigour, professionalism and some very steady hands. I think it has brought together all the different parts of the business and employer community to look out and after each other, through weekly Bristol One City Zoom meetings and now to start to look and plan for the challenges ahead.  In short this crisis has for me shown ‘the Bristol team works’.

Within my own organisation - Business West Chambers and Initiative - we immediately created our Trading Through Coronavirus service led by a number of us and pivoting a dozen of us to work tirelessly and on a real time basis to help guide and support businesses and employers of all types and totalling over 150,000 to date through the implications of lockdown and for many their business having to close their doors. This has included helping our business and employer members to help other businesses through a raft of online and other guidance and support together with lobbying local and central government to ensure that fewer businesses as possibly avoided slips through the cracks of their financial support.

What are businesses telling you are the main challenges they’re facing?

In April we conducted a survey of a thousand businesses and only 16% of them said they would be able to survive if lockdown lasts 6 months or more.

Three months in, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a continued blanket lockdown isn’t sustainable. The question of how we slowly take the lid off and ease lockdown measures is a really difficult one to answer, but there needs to be a really difficult balance between protecting lives and livelihoods, whilst avoiding another spike of course.

Then there’s the human dimension that businesses are grappling with. How to keep the workforce engaged and healthy whilst everyone is working from home? Are we doing enough to promote positive mental health and wellbeing? Things like that.

Lots of businesses are also thinking positively about the future despite many challenges they face – looking at how they operate more sustainably for example.

What makes Bristol a unique business hub?

As well as the key geographic and environmental credentials I think there is a strong spirit of unity here that is tremendous, together with an entrepreneurial and at times daring approach. The One City approach has really come into its own during the coronavirus pandemic – something which I have been able to witness and support first-hand.

As co-chair of the Bristol One City Economy Board – it never ceases to amaze me how lucky we are in Bristol to have so many businesses, organisations and individuals fully invested in this place who want to do their very best for their own people and the communities in which they operate.

The collective will to respond to this coronavirus crisis and come back stronger and better is palpable. Over 900 businesses have joined our Initiative meetings in the last 14 weeks, pulling us much closer together as a collective to talk about and meet some very difficult challenges of today and plan for a better future. Clean, inclusive growth for the future is where we are all aiming.

The vibrancy and diversity we’re known for has also been on show throughout this pandemic. We are a city with over 91 languages spoken which I believe we have the ingredients and determination to shape an inclusive bright future for the people and businesses of the city. We have some truly unique and innovative social and commercial entrepreneurs who will help enable us to adapt to the changes ahead in what will be a challenging environment.

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  • The West of England Initiative

    Provides an effective link between private and public sectors to ensure the interests of commerce are considered in key decision making.

  • Trading Through Coronavirus

    We provide guidance & support on Coronavirus (COVID-19) for businesses, employers and employees in the region.