Business Secretary's statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 28 March 2020

Business Secretary Alok Sharma gave the 28 March 2020 daily press briefing on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of 9am on 28 March, a total of 120,776 people have been tested, of which 103,687 were confirmed negative and 17,089 were confirmed positive.

As of 5pm on 27 March, 1,019 patients in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died.

As with our population, for businesses large and small, coronavirus represents an unprecedented challenge.

Speaking with business leaders and representative organisations every day, I appreciate just how tough the situation is.

When we tell people to “stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives”, we know it has a real cost to your families and your firms.

And I want to thank the many businesses and workers, right across the UK, who are playing a vital role in keeping the British economy going.

You are delivering for our nation through this difficult time and we said we would deliver for you, doing whatever it takes.

That is why we have taken unprecedented action to support our economy, to save jobs and secure livelihoods.

To help businesses pull through at this difficult time we have set out income support schemes, for both the employed and self-employed, as well as a package of grants, loans, business rate holidays and VAT deferrals.

Businesses and trade unions have welcomed our interventions and I want to reassure them that we are working around the clock to get the funding, as quickly as possible, to where it is needed.

On Monday we launched the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.

This scheme is designed to make it easier for businesses with a turnover of up to £45 million to access vital financial support.

So far, the scheme’s 40 accredited lenders, including all high street banks, are processing thousands of applications.

This week, I provided guidance to English councils on the grants to our smallest businesses, including those operating in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

The first tranche of funding arrived with English councils yesterday. I want to ensure that grant money is with businesses as soon as possible, providing direct funding support to almost a million businesses across our country.

Now whilst our companies have requested financial support, they have also asked us to look to ease the burden of regulation at this challenging time and we have responded to that request.

Yesterday, we brought forward legislation to temporarily suspend some competition rules in the supermarkets sector and in the operation of the Isle of Wight ferries.

From retailers sharing delivery vans to ferry operators coordinating staff, these measures will allow firms to work together to deliver vital services to the public more effectively at this time.

We have also introduced measures to ensure that workers who have not taken all of their statutory annual leave due to COVID-19, will now be able to carry that entitlement over into the next 2 years.

This will protect staff from losing out, whilst providing businesses with flexibility when they need it most.

Earlier this week, together with Companies House, we announced that over 4 million businesses will be granted a 3 month extension to the filing their accounts, through a fast-track online process.

Over 10,000 businesses have already successfully applied for this extension.

And we will continue to monitor companies’ ability to meet the range of other filing obligations they have under the Companies Act, and we will provide further extensions if needed.

I recognise just how how hard employees, business owners and directors, are working to keep their companies going.

It is crucial that when the crisis passes, as it will, we are ready to bounce back.

And so today I want to announce more measures, which are designed to give businesses greater flexibility as they face the current crisis, to help them emerge intact the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We will introduce measures to improve the insolvency system, which provides the legal options for companies running into major difficulties.

Our overriding objective is to help UK companies which need to undergo a financial rescue or restructuring process to keep trading. These measures will give those firms extra time and space to weather the storm and be ready when the crisis ends, whilst ensuring that creditors get the best return possible in circumstances.

The changes to the insolvency regime will include new rules to make sure companies undergoing restructuring can continue to get hold of supplies and raw materials.

And there will be a temporary suspension of wrongful trading provisions for company directors, to remove the threat of personal liability during the pandemic. This provision will have retrospective effect from 1 March. However, to be clear, all of the other checks and balances that help to ensure directors fulfil their duties properly, will remain in force.

We will bring forward legislation in these areas at the earliest opportunity.

We will also put in place measures to ensure that companies required to hold Annual General Meetings (AGM) can do so flexibly, in a manner that is compatible with the best public health guidance.

This might include postponing, or holding the AGM online or by phone using only proxy voting.

In addition, we are also introducing a range of measures to boost the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, to protect frontline NHS staff.

And we’re removing administrative barriers for the production of hand sanitiser. By reducing the amount of red tape, new suppliers and businesses that produce ingredients for safe hand sanitisers, will be able to bring their products to market in a matter of days.

Companies including BrewDog and Ineos have already stepped forward to offer their services.

I am incredibly proud of how businesses and individuals across our great nation, have risen to the challenge posed by COVID-19.

Whether it’s offers from companies coming forward to support the ventilator challenge…

or more than 700,000 people signing up to volunteer for our brilliant NHS…

or those in the public and private sector working hard to keep our country safe and moving.

Britain is meeting the challenge. Working together in a joint endeavour to get through this pandemic.

And be in no doubt, the government will continue to fight tooth and nail to protect lives and livelihoods everywhere in this country as we stand shoulder to shoulder with our people and our businesses.

Thank you.

Published 28 March 2020