Turning Covid resilience into recovery – and then growth

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Graeme Smith, chief executive of Jersey Business, explains how some hard lessons learned over the past two years can be put to good use

BACK in December 2020, we all hoped that 2021 would be a year of recovery from Covid-19, a year when we would start to get back to some kind of normal social and economic life.

However, as we emerge from the 2021/22 festive period, the headlines continue to be dominated by the new strain of Covid and the reintroduction of some restrictions both locally and across much of the UK and Europe.

But at least we now have much greater confidence in how we can operate to mitigate the risks to our health and wellbeing. Put simply, we have much greater resilience in our society and businesses.

But we need to capitalise on the lessons in order to build back stronger, to tackle some of the issues we have struggled to deal with in the past and to identify and maximise the new opportunities that a post-Covid world will offer.

In the past, we would have struggled to overcome the issues that Covid threw our way. Instead, we were able to tackle these with pace and real collaboration. There are many great examples of how we did this and two really resonate with me.

Firstly, the Nightingale Hospital. This infrastructure project saw an incredible collaboration across the construction industry and with government which, together, delivered a complex build project in weeks rather than years. The Nightingale Hospital was our Covid insurance policy and, like any insurance policy, it worked best because we didn’t need to claim on it. The fact it was never occupied is not a reason to criticise the decision to build. This project is now referenced in the UK as a great example of how to deliver a major critical project in a time of real stress.

The second example is how we developed and enhanced the various Covid-19 business support schemes. These required real partnership between government, bodies such as Jersey Business, the Jersey Hospitality Association and the Chamber of Commerce, among others. Business owners too showed real leadership as they had to adapt their operating models, support their staff and continue to provide great customer service.

There is some way to go before businesses recover from the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic but the reality is we have seen much less business failure than we had initially feared. We are also back to pre-Covid employment levels and our problem now is more skills shortages.

Covid-19 aside, there remain for me two key issues that we have not solved but which need to be tackled with renewed vigour.

The Economic Council, in their New Perspectives report, identified that, despite our successes, we need to develop a stronger culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism to improve our productivity, economic resilience and, in turn, ensure that Jersey is truly a great place for all to live and work.

To achieve this, we need to see creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism as a key strand in our education system alongside academic subjects. We also need to ensure we have the right ‘eco system’ that encourages leading-edge research and development activity in areas where Jersey has a real advantage such as regulatory compliance, legal and professional services, swift and informed decision-making and our physical land and waters.

Secondly, we have an issue with a lack of quality housing, not only social housing but also keyworker and what I class as workforce accommodation. In conversations I have with businesses across all sectors, one of the biggest issues they have in filling vacant jobs is the cost of living in Jersey, the prime cost factor being housing.

Addressing this requires a ‘Jersey plc’ approach to ensure the spiralling cost to build is addressed or at least controlled and the development of suitable sites is maximised. Tackling site identification, the cost of the planning process, how we use more modular construction and how we incentivise/tax residential developments is key to this. The situation is complex but, with focus and prioritisation, we can start to address this.

As an example, some of the schemes being developed in London to provide new high-quality workforce accommodation and shared services are ideal for employees needing a place to live for short periods. This type of scheme could greatly help the needs of our vital construction, hospitality and agriculture sectors and, at the same time, dampen down the inflationary pressures on the private rental market. We are working closely with government to try to progress this and, from our inquiries, we believe there is private-sector appetite to fund such developments. However, success in this area will need a collaborative approach across government departments such as housing and planning as well as the private sector.

So, if we can solve some of these historical challenges, what are the existing strengths of the Jersey economy that we need to build on? In my view we are incredibly well ‘connected’ and there are real advantages, which should make entrepreneurs want to build and grow a business in Jersey.

At government level, our policy makers are accessible and approachable (when compared, for example, with the UK). Our regulators, bankers, lawyers and accountants have multi-jurisdictional expertise with global reach, our rural economy has global brands and, from an environmental perspective, in Durrell we have a world-leading conservation body. These qualities combined with our physical assets, a beautiful island with incredible tidal waters, good connectivity to the UK and high-quality broadband make Jersey an ideal location to build and grow new innovative businesses in areas such as data security and AgriTech. We are starting to see this with medicinal cannabis where Jersey has been chosen as the location for new investment ahead of other competing jurisdictions.

To deliver on this, we need to have the same resilience, collaborative way of working and pace that we demonstrated during 2020. If we do this, government, arm’s-length organisations and industry can, together, start to deal with historic issues and, at the same time, build on our natural advantages to achieve real sustainable growth as an economy and society.

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