Since March 23 when prime minister Boris Johnson first announced that the nation was to enter lockdown, 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year for businesses, organisations and communities across the UK. In this article, Graham Stewart, managing director of inspection and testing services provider Alex Stewart International, reflects on how his business has sought to chart a course through the lockdown period while touching on the impact on the industries it serves and the hopes of business leaders across the UK going forward.
Monday March 23 seems such a terribly long time ago now, and the day after Boris Johnson’s somewhat ambiguous lockdown announcement was possibly the most critical point for the company in our recent history. We immediately held an emergency meeting to check whether we were safe to carry on working, we called the government’s hotline to confirm our status. Our agriculture and food testing operations eventually received a government letter to show to customers that we could continue with our inspection and analysis services, much of that is based at Peel Port’s Royal Seaforth Grain and Feed Terminal for shipments which were still arriving from all around Europe and the Americas.
I would never have imagined a scenario of closing the company down for four months then having to start all over again, pretending to compete as if it were the morning after lockdown. Initially there was a lot of confusion amongst staff as to “what happens next?” so myself and senior management tried to reassure everyone that their health and well-being was our primary concern. For insurance purposes, we carried out an in-depth risk assessment on all aspects of our work, and, by staying open, we continued to provide our worldwide client base with vital quality and quantity verification services. Approximately 75 per cent of our administration worked from home, the rest remained on site for two separate six-hour shifts, from 06:00 to 18:00. This operated well, more importantly it allowed the company to became Covid-19 compliant, and, as time moved on, this was significant - we were living in real time, co-existing with Covid-19, following daily protocols such as temperature taking, social distancing, mask wearing and working with due caution. Daily updates on how our global offices were coping were circulated to the ASi Group and three open letters to the industry sector were circulated and posted to LinkedIn.
Overall, business has been reasonably stable despite global metals markets experiencing shrinkage firstly due to Asian metal refiners temporarily closing in February and later on supply from mines and loading ports in the Americas, and then precious metal refiners in Europe reducing output, with some even temporarily shutting down. Steel scrap inspections coordinated from our office in Turkey, which also includes quality control at the Port of Liverpool, have thrived; in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, we have inspected, sampled and tested a record number of Panamax vessels loaded with soya bean for China. The UK food and pet food testing part of our services have also been kept busy - as Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out” scheme recently proved, people and animals need to be fed. Our hygiene inspection and swabbing services at some UK airports were unfortunately suspended until the end of September, however UK airport authorities now want us to increase our swabbing services to further ensure public hygiene at retail outlets during Covid-19 times.
In early June, our chief chemist noticed a Liverpool Chamber of Commerce news letter informing that Randox Health could provide on-site antibodies testing for local businesses; we tested over 80 staff for antibodies and in the light of the prime minister’s government broadcast on September 22 we have ratified our protocols and continue to monitor the crisis we face.
All business leaders will hope that these new measures bring the virus back under control as we head into 2021, however I believe the prime minister needs to seriously review his strategies towards British companies such as ourselves. In our own case, it does feel like we have been forgotten about, and even though we have carried on working our way through this crisis, supporting both local and national economies, we will now also be forced to foot what is now an increasing bill.
I really do hope we have no further business interruption, no matter whether it’s Covid-19 or Brexit issues, everybody at Alex Stewart International have shown an incredible spirit to just get on with things in the face of adversity, which is the kind of spirit and attitude I appreciate and identify with in these difficult times.