Saturday 6 March 2021 12:01 am

Businesses of all stripes have stepped up to the Covid-19 challenge

Stuart Bonthrone is CEO of Esri UK

The private sector has already played a crucial role in the fight against Covid-19.

Not only have some of the world’s largest companies developed crucial vaccines and life-saving treatments, but the private sector more broadly has also played a more indirect – yet still highly important – role in supporting the public sector as it delivers vital services throughout the pandemic.  

At the start of the crisis, many companies focused on their own survival. But over time, as what we thought would be a short-term crisis has become a longer-term challenge, this focus has changed. The pandemic has inspired a sense of camaraderie – all businesses were impacted in one way or another, and we are all in this together.  

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Although, it has also created much wider awareness of social inequalities. As a result, many businesses have thought carefully about how they can do more to support their customers and communities. This crisis is a time for UK companies to demonstrate their value to society above and beyond the services they provide.  

Many businesses have already stepped up to support the public sector: we’ve seen companies donating their excess PPE; supermarkets and fast-food chains delivering free meals to NHS staff and frontline workers; and gin distilleries and beer producers such as BrewDog hastily pivoting to produce essential hand sanitiser.  

Some businesses have supported the public sector as a continuation of their corporate social responsibility strategy — helping their community has been part of their DNA for years. Others have stepped up as a consequence of the pandemic. I hope that once we’re out the other side of all this, they continue to offer this valuable support.  

Another factor behind this support for public services is that many businesses have received a great deal of government help in the last year, such as through the furlough scheme and government-backed loans. If you’ve received government help, it’s right to think about what you can do to help others. And while some companies are still facing financial struggles, others have thrived. Those companies that are doing well have a responsibility to repay the country.  

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Where we’ve tried to play our part is by donating £3.8 million worth of software to various corners of the public sector to help them respond to the lasting public health disaster that Covid-19 has inflicted. Another standout example would be those supermarkets who repaid billions in business rates to the Treasury last year.  

One of the major issues also exposed by the pandemic has been the digital divide in the UK. With classrooms forced to close due to national lockdowns, millions of schoolchildren in the UK suddenly needed to be able to access online learning resources, join virtual lessons and submit their work by email.  

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that significant numbers of pupils had little or no access to computers outside of school, which severely restricted their learning opportunities. Ofcom estimated that 1.14 million to 1.78 million children in the UK had no access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home at all. 

There was a burning need to get equipment to these children in order to bridge the gap emerging between those who could continue to learn throughout lockdown and those whose education had come to an abrupt halt. 

Thankfully we were able to help education charity Business2Schools tackle this divide, through the launch of an appeal to businesses to donate unwanted laptops and computers to local schools. These devices could be wiped, reconfigured and then loaned or given to either the nearest schools or those who needed them most. This was made by possible by the use of our technology to identify said individuals.   

So far, over 4,000 schools in the UK and Ireland have registered for donations, and more than 14,000 devices have been allocated to those in greatest need — much of this equipment may otherwise have ended up in landfill. 

Of course, more needs to be done to close the digital divide in this country, but this example showcases how businesses can step up and support the public sector at a time of crisis. 

While the vaccine rollout is continuing at pace, we are not out of the woods just yet. Businesses have a responsibility to help and a valuable role to play in supporting society see this through. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.