WoE Initiative meeting discusses managing COVID over the winter months

Kye Parkin
Communications Executive | Business West
18th September 2020

The colder months are coming, and businesses must prepare for a second wave. This was the key takeaway from September’s online Initiative meeting.

On the day that some schools in the city region welcomed pupils for the first time since March, West of England Initiative President Richard Bonner and Chief Executive James Durie opened the meeting with a look forward to the autumn months.

With the coronavirus job retention scheme coming to an end and the economy formally in a recession, there are macro challenges facing our business community James Durie acknowledged as he addressed West of England Initiative members. He stressed the importance of continuing to engage with the Initiative and Business West on these issues, and feeding into the national conversation as part of the British Chambers of Commerce, either through our Quarterly Economic Survey or attending our upcoming webinars with Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey and US Ambassador Woody Johnson for example.

As well as these challenges, there is also optimism for positive change in the Bristol city region said James, particularly in regards to the shift to more sustainable modes of transport. The launch of Cycling Works Bristol alongside WECA’s walking and cycling campaign and the increase in interest in walking and cycling to work (as found by our COVID-19 Business Impact Survey) are all positive developments that point to a cleaner, greener future for our city. James finished his presentation by welcoming our newest members TimesTwo Investments and remote working specialists Croft Communications.

Bristol City Council’s Public Health Consultant Sally Hogg was next to address the meeting with an update briefing about starting to plan for the winter period and ensuring business continuity.

She began with an update of where things currently sit in Bristol and the wider South West in terms of COVID-19 infection rates. Compared to the rest of the country, the South West continues to do well, with overall infections low she said. However, Bristol showed a slight increase during August – a period in which Bristol City Council has held daily meetings to devise intervention strategies and develop its local outbreak management plan.

For business, Sally noted that Bristol City Council Public Health stands ready to advise on the shutting down of workplaces in case of an outbreak, which is defined as two or more linked cases of COVID-19. Bristol City Council Public Health can also help businesses put in place workplace bubbles throughout the autumn and winter period she said.

Just how businesses have been adapting the way they work and transitioning toward the COVID-19 safe workplace was outlined by Fiona O’Kane – partner at Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD). Fiona shared an illuminating case study of how the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone-based professional services firm has been reopening its offices and putting measures in place to ensure business continuity over the next few months.

As a business with 240 staff in Bristol, WBD is preparing to fully open its buildings on 9th September on a 50% occupancy basis. In terms of managing the various comings and goings of its staff, Fiona said that WBD’s approach has been to empower partners and team leaders by giving them flexibility to rota as they see fit. She also mentioned that client meetings have gone online, but partners and team leaders will need to work together to schedule internal team meetings with space now at a premium. Underlying WBD’s flexible approach is the various staff surveys it has conducted through the lockdown period in order to gauge staff sentiment as they plan and make adjustments. 

Fiona also mentioned that WBD is ending furlough this month, with most employees coming back into business. Furthermore, she stated that WBD is looking to the future positively, viewing COVID-19 as an opportunity to change staff travel habits into winter by supporting Cycling Works Bristol campaign for instance. Fiona finished her talk mentioning the re:estart Britain campaign – a useful portal to help guide businesses bounce back following COVID.

Andy Forbes – Chief Executive and Principal of Bristol City College was the penultimate speaker of the morning.

As someone quite recently moving into post, Andy described how the college has had to pivot since March to a blended learning approach, which has received a mixed reaction from students.

Given the college’s vocational emphasis, Andy admitted that while some aspects of the teaching programme can be easily conducted online, there is no substitute for contact teaching for courses such as hair and beauty and catering for example. 

One positive of the college’s recent work is that most existing apprentices have stayed enrolled on their courses Andy stated, however, as has been widely reported in the media, there is concern about new start apprenticeships, with numbers dropping off dramatically on a national basis.

Business West Head of Skills Nicky Williams briefly addressed the meeting, giving a quick overview of the Kickstart employment scheme, before a Q&A and networking led by President Richard Bonner.

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