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UK life sciences leads the Covid-19 fight

16th Apr 2020 7 min read

This is the first weekly update from our life sciences team on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting our clients and the sector as a whole.


We’re working closely with customers and partners from across life sciences as the UK’s globally renowned industry helps lead the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent days, we’ve hosted a webinar featuring Peter Ellingworth, Chief Executive of the Association of British HealthTech Industries, and Tony Jones, CEO of One Nucleus, which was full of crucial insight on R&D, manufacturing, the industry supply chain and international trade. We’ve also been talking to businesses that want to play their part in sourcing testing kits, instruments, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other vital supplies in the Covid-19 battle. The Government is requesting that all offers of such help are registered here

Already, the UK’s life sciences expertise is proving to be invaluable in responding to this pandemic. For example, a newly-developed rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19 is already being deployed in Cambridge hospitals. The test, which can provide results within 90 minutes, was developed by a business spun out of the University of Cambridge. After the nationwide roll out, and once UK demand has been met, there is clearly a huge potential in international markets too.

The challenge for the sector is to develop robust testing that can be ramped up to scale at speed. With antigen tests, for example, the unprecedented global demand means there is a balance to strike between rapidity and ensuring testing can be delivered reliably. The private sector is already offering up laboratories and testing equipment to supplement capacity in the NHS and at Public Health England, with options for additional testing facilities being explored urgently.

There will be new collaborations and ideas emerging on an ongoing basis. For example, we have already seen Royal Mint moving into the production of medical visors, with the first batch already in use at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital.

At the same time, as in other industries, the pandemic will also cause specific problems for life sciences companies such as remote working and disruption to supply chains. Three leading industry trade bodies are collecting insights here as they explore options for supporting businesses through these problems. One initiative is a survey that will help the Greater London Authority, national government and other organisations develop solutions to help life sciences businesses through the crisis and beyond.

Some help is already available. For example, the government has waived import duties and VAT on key medical supplies, equipment and protective garments. More details are available here

Finally, it’s important that the life sciences sector keeps one eye on the future. For example, one point made by Peter Ellingworth in our recent seminar, is that much elective surgery has been cancelled in many countries as the focus shifts to coping with Covid-19. As the pandemic eases, demand for products such as knee implants, cataract surgeries and so on, is set to soar as these procedures are rescheduled. Production will need to be increased quickly to accommodate significantly higher demand in a few months’ time.

Santander has an extensive International network of banks and partner banks together with a comprehensive ecosystem of life science international business partners. Together these will assist companies to re-establish sales in their established pre pandemic markets and to explore new export opportunities that will arise as countries recover from Covid-19.


Manufacturing data begins to tumble

More broadly, the effects of the pandemic on manufacturing are now beginning to show up in sector data. The IHS/Markit Purchasing Managers Index, based on a survey of business leaders in the sector, fell to 47.8 in March, a three-month low and down from 51.7 in February. Any reading below 50 indicates a majority of respondents have experienced a contraction in activity.

Given that the UK government’s response to Covid-19 did not accelerate until the second half of the month, with the Prime Minister introducing lockdown measures on 23 March, April’s figures are likely to be significantly worse. Manufacturers across the UK are now focused on liquidity and very careful cash flow management. Several listed engineering companies have now announced they are cancelling planned dividends in order to conserve cash and we expect more to follow this example.

The experience of manufacturers in the UK mirrors that of their counterparts in other parts of the world. Factory activity contracted across most of Asia in March as the pandemic paralysed supply chains. Significant falls in activity in Japan and South Korea overshadowed a modest improvement in China where authorities have felt able to relax some of the restrictions as Covid-19 cases have slowed. With the number of countries around the world imposing their own lockdown regimes, we now expect the impact of the pandemic on global supply chains to be more enduring than many originally expected.