Boris Johnson has told business leaders that efficient delivery of the coronavirus vaccine is Britain’s best economic recovery tool as he promised a sustainable fightback from the worst recession in 300 years.
The prime minister chaired the first meeting of a new business council designed to coordinate the government’s economic response to Covid-19 with leaders from the country’s biggest companies.
Aiming to reassure business leaders that the government remained committed to kickstarting the economy as soon as possible, Johnson told the executives from 30 major firms – including GlaxoSmithKline, British Airways and HSBC – that the government was looking ahead to the economic recovery and the business landscape after Brexit.
The prime minister said it was important for the government and businesses to work together to rebuild the virus-stricken economy, and that he would support job creation, upgrade Britain’s infrastructure, and launch a “green industrial revolution” to help the country “build back better” from the pandemic.
Despite recent border disruption and intense frustration among business leaders over the government’s handling of Brexit, Johnson told the first meeting of the “build back better council” that British industry had opportunities to seize from leaving the EU. Johnson had been reported in 2018 to have said, “Fuck business” when questioned about the sector’s concerns over a potential no-deal departure.
Sources attending the meeting said the government was in “sales mode” in a bid to strengthen relations with company bosses that had become increasingly tattered in recent years. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who also attended the meeting, told the leaders that effectively distributing the vaccine was the most important economic policy. Although no “big bang” removal of lockdown restrictions was expected, the chancellor suggested that vaccination would help to build a platform for a strong economic recovery in the second half of the year.
The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, the trade secretary, Liz Truss, and the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, also attended the meeting, which included representatives from firms from sectors of the economy including finance, energy, technology and hospitality.
Johnson told those present that with the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow this November and G7 summit in Cornwall in June, Britain had the potential to develop an influential voice in shaping a green recovery from the pandemic.
However, green groups said there was a telling lack of environmental leadership at the event despite its high-profile billing. Attendees included the chief executives of oil and gas group BP and of Heathrow, Britain’s largest airport.
“Boris Johnson’s ‘build back better council’ looks more like a polluters’ club,” said John Sauven, Greenpeace’s executive director. “It’s packed with some of Britain’s most polluting industries and investors, and green leadership is conspicuous by its absence.
“We can’t build back better by relying on the same old industries that are fuelling climate chaos and the destruction of nature. It’s high time the government stopped favouring the usual vested interests and gave its full support to the businesses building a cleaner, healthier, safer future.”
Connor Schwartz, climate lead at Friends of the Earth, said the government should be discussing green policies such as scrapping multi-billion-pound investment in road schemes and boosting investment in green technologies.
“This is a far cry from just two months ago, when the prime minister announced the need for a green industrial revolution,” he said. “Instead of listening to fossil fuel companies and airports, the government should turn their ear to the majority of the public who want climate change prioritised in the economic recovery to coronavirus.”
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