UK steel suppliers and manufacturers make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy, from the steel supply chain, to the many thousands of people who work in the sector, to the metal’s crucial role in physical projects from construction to infrastructure.
In recent months that economy has been frozen in place, with massive drops in activity, spending and future demand arising from the Coronavirus pandemic.
While hopes are relatively high for the UK’s services economy to bounce back rapidly, this is not so easily done in primary and secondary industries like steelmaking and construction.
These physical jobs cannot be done from home, and even in the workplace or on a building site, social distancing can be difficult to maintain – for example, builders are being told to use lifts only for materials, and instead to climb using ladders to avoid being in a confined space.
In April the National Trade Union Steel Coordinating Committee warned that although steel is a “strategic foundation industry”, it faces an existential threat from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There can be no doubt that the current crisis poses a threat to the steel industry in this country,” it said. “In many cases order books have fallen off a cliff and it will be months before normal conditions return.”
However, it added that “steelworkers are resilient and we have been through crises before”.
The industry has already benefited to an extent from some of the measures introduced in the government’s support package for businesses affected by COVID-19.
Among these is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which allows workers to be placed on furlough instead of being left with no income at all.
But on May 25th, Unite said there is “no more time to lose to prevent mass job losses” in some of the UK’s strategically vital industries.
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary for manufacturing, added: “Recovery from this huge health and economic shock cannot be piecemeal. It has to be a national systematic effort.”
His comments came amid rumours that chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak will soon unveil Project Birch, a government scheme to invest in vital industries and companies whose order books have collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we move into the next phase of the Coronavirus economic curve, primary industries will face some of the toughest challenges – but with the support of government and continued orders from customers, UK steel suppliers will continue to do whatever it takes to recover from the crisis.