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Europe's companies retool production to fight coronavirus fallout

Rob Davies and Lisa O'Carroll
Photograph: Chris Helgren/Reuters

Companies across Europe are making sweeping changes to their business models in a frantic effort to assist with the response to the coronavirus outbreak, or simply to survive the crisis without going bust.

Engineer Meggitt said it was leading a group of firms contributing to a drive to produce tens of thousands of ventilators to treat patients who develop respiratory problems.

Other companies offering to lend expertise, staff and factory floor space include automotive firms McLaren and Nissan, Dyson, Airbus, Vauxhall, Jaguar Land Rover, Renishaw and JCB.

As well as ventilators, hand sanitiser and masks are in huge demand, prompting several companies to venture into new territory to help increase supply.

The British Honey Company, which makes honey, gin, rum and other spirits from its base in the Cotswolds, said it would use spare capacity in its distillery in Worminghall, Buckinghamshire, to produce hand sanitiser.

Its chief executive, Michael Williams, said: “An alcohol-based sanitiser is vodka or gin at 70% ABV made from denatured alcohol.

“Following approval of our application to HMRC to produce denatured alcohol, our expert distillery team have been working alongside our in-house microbiologist and an Oxford University chemist to develop and manufacture this new product.”

Some gin distillers have volunteered to do the same, while Scotland-based “punk” beer company Brewdog, which also has a spirits venture, is using its production facilities to make hand sanitiser.

Its “Brewgel”, made at its Aberdeen distillery, is to be provided free for those in need, starting next week.

Both Brewdog and the British Honey Company are following in the footsteps of French luxury goods firm LVMH, which began producing disinfectant gel at its Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy factories for distribution to French hospitals fighting the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

Luxury spirits firm Pernod Ricard is taking similar steps in the US and delivering alcohol for sanitiser too, via its Absolut Vodka brand.

Nivea has started production of medical grade disinfectants to support the fight against the pandemic in Europe, the German consumer goods firm said on Thursday, offering to deliver 500 tonnes to medical facilities and public services.

Similarly, fashion house Zara, owned by the Spanish company Inditex, pledged to use its global network to produce items such as surgical masks and hospital gowns.

It said it had already donated 10,000 masks and a further 300,000 were due to be sent by the end of the week.

But while some companies are retooling, or using spare capacity to help limit the spread of the virus or treat sufferers, others have enough on their plate just trying to stay afloat.

The UK prime minister’s advice that people don’t visit pubs and restaurants sent shockwaves through the hospitality sector, prompting warnings that much of the industry simply could not survive a prolonged dearth of customers.

The UK’s leading pub chain, Greene King, has responded by vowing that if you can’t come to the pub, you can bring the pub to you.

The business is inviting customers to take away traditional fare such as steak and kidney pies and fish and chips, as well as bottled beer.

The service will start with 50 pubs this week but Greene King aims to roll the plan out to 500 in the next few weeks.

Its chief executive, Nick Mackenzie, said: “Providing our locals with a pub food takeaway service has been in the plan for a while but we’ve accelerated it due to the impact coronavirus is having on our local communities.

“Our pubs are at the heart of the local community and we are continuing to look at other ways we can support communities during the current crisis.”

Food takeaway service Deliveroo has already launched a “no contact” service, giving customers who are self-isolating or keeping their distance from other people the option to have meals left on their doorstep. However, major question marks remain over the sick pay that will be available to its drivers if they self-isolate, given their gig economy employment status.

Small businesses and sole traders who do not sell a physical product are turning to the internet to solve their problems.

Personal trainers and language teachers have started running classes online, with customers doing star jumps or declining irregular Russian verbs in front of their computers at home.

The end of large gatherings spells disaster for the music industry but “virtual concerts” are providing an alternative outlet for artists.

Listings website Gigs Guide is providing a diary of online gigs by artists around the world.

Other sectors are adapting in ways that might not be to everybody’s taste.

Betting firms Betfair and William Hill have intensified campaigns to sign people up to online casino games, as the absence of sporting events kills off the betting markets. William Hill’s US arm has also offered “international soccer action” that turned out to be fixtures from the Belarus Premier League.

One sports betting company, has even begun offering punters the chance to bet on the weather, including the maximum temperatures in a variety of US cities.