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Big business builds its own apps to get staff back into offices

Post-virus – and after Brexit – everything is going to change. That’s the dominant view of national and international media. But how exactly do they see the future? This regular digest section gives some of their answers and views/Edited by George Hamilton

In this edition (June 19):

Big business builds its own apps to get staff back into offices

  • Institute of Directors says it is crucial that the wider public health response is “up to scratch” for the sake of smaller firms

Britain seeks membership of Pacific trade bloc, but US/UK trade deal on hold

  • Britain will try to join countries such as Japan and Canada in a transpacific free-trade bloc after Brexit, but the UK/US trade deal is “almost impossible” before presidential election.

BP expects to take $17.5bn hit due to coronavirus writedown

  • Oil company says, post-virus, it may be forced to leave some of its fossil fuel discoveries in the ground

Abandon land for a less-taxing life

  • Tech tycoons seek health — and financial — gains by moving to platforms in the sea

Farmer Jeremy Clarkson rages over chlorinated chicken and red tape

  • Clarkson now owns a farm and says cheap imports will change the countryside for ever – views driven by experience, and fiercely expressed as ever. 

Big business builds its own apps to get staff back into office

Big companies are building their own apps and taking other steps in a bid to get staff safely back to the office as the Government drags its feet on test and trace.

Big Four accounting firm KPMG has developed an app that will check workers’ temperatures on days that they come into the office, while rival Deloitte is readying a tool allowing it to track and report cases of Covid-19 among its 18,000 staff.

The developments have emerged as health minister Lord Bethnall said the UK’s much-anticipated contact tracing app, which is being tested on the Isle of Wight, may not be ready nationwide until the winter.

Institute of Directors chief economist Tej Parikh said it was crucial the wider public health response was “up to scratch”.

While big businesses such as KPMG can find their own ways to safeguard staff, he said “this kind of strategy is unlikely to be feasible for smaller firms”.

Similar moves have already been made by banks and tech giants, including Amazon, which already runs its own track and trace system that alerts workers if anyone in their workplace has tests positive for Covid. However, the online retailer is now going one step further and building its own Covid testing division.

Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street bank, is also still debating whether to order antibody tests for City staff. Swiss rival Credit Suisse is testing staff in its major hubs while JP Morgan is offering private at-home tests to all UK staff.

KPMG’s “UK Return to Work” app will be used as part of a three-stage process for getting the firm’s 17,600 consultants, accountants and support staff back to work. The entire firm has been working from home since lockdown.

The app, which is still in development, will generate a pass that approved employees can use to enter office buildings.

The first phase of KPMG’s return will begin in July and will be restricted to people in “business critical” roles who need to attend the firm’s offices or client sites. Another big four accountant, Deloitte, will also open a small number of offices from July 6.

Meanwhile, PwC is developing a contact tracing app for its workforce that a spokesman said was being tested in the UK.

An app developed by the firm’s international network, which uses GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals from users’ phones, will be made available for clients to purchase and has been tested in Shanghai. It is not known whether all of these functions will be used in the UK version. Daily Telegraph June 17

Britain seeks membership of Pacific trade bloc, but US/UK trade deal on hold

As hopes of an early US trade deal fade, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, said that the UK would seek membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links the economies of Asia and the Pacific with Canada and South America.

The combined economies of the 11 members of the partnership are worth more than £10 trillion and it is the third largest free-trade area in the world by GDP, after the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European single market. Signatories include Australia, Mexico and Vietnam.

The move was overshadowed by comments from Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, who said it would be “almost impossible” for a trade deal between the UK and the US to be approved before the presidential election. Mr Lighthizer also warned that the UK would have to give way on animal welfare issues to strike an agreement. “[We are] not going to compromise. We either have fair access to agriculture or we won’t have a deal,” he said.

Senior government figures believe that membership of the transpacific partnership could be a “back door” to a trade deal with the US if President Trump loses the election in November. In 2016 the US had been due to join the trade pact but withdrew after Mr Trump’s election.

Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, backed the pact when he was vice-president and has suggested that he would like the US to reconsider membership if he is elected. He is likely to prioritise this over any potential bilateral trade deal with the UK.

Ms Truss said the UK was to begin formal trade talks with Australia and New Zealand, who are both members of the transpacific partnership, but hoped to join the wider bloc.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said yesterday that the question of how to enforce a future UK trade, fishing and security deal would be a significant stumbling block during post-Brexit negotiations next month.

The EU is demanding an overarching, legally binding dispute resolution mechanism that the government fears will give an oversight role to the European Court of Justice. Ms Von der Leyen said the issue of “strong governance mechanisms” was critical to any successful deal. “Governance may sound like an issue for bureaucrats. It’s not,” she said.

Germany, which is preparing to take over the EU’s rotating presidency next month, allowing it to co-ordinate other European governments, sees September as the key month for a breakthrough and has urged no-deal planning to be stepped up. The Times June 18

BP expects to take $17.5bn hit due to coronavirus writedown

BP will slash up to $17.5bn (£14bn) from the value of its oil and gas assets, and may be forced to leave new fossil fuel discoveries in the ground, after its own forecasts found the Covid-19 pandemic may affect the world’s oil demand for the next 30 years.

The British oil major told investors it would take the hit, its largest writedown in a decade, because its oil price forecasts for the next three decades have fallen by almost a third.

BP has announced plans to cut 10,000 jobs worldwide, representing about 15% of its 70,000 staff, by the end of the year. Employees were told the job cuts were essential to enable the company to cope with a global collapse in demand for oil owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

The unexpected announcement marks the clearest sign yet that the coronavirus could hasten the global shift towards cleaner energy sources after triggering a historic slump in demand for fossil fuels to 25-year lows this year.

Charlie Kronick, a senior climate adviser for Greenpeace UK, said the oil price reset was long overdue. “This huge dent in BP’s balance sheet suggests it has finally dawned on BP that the climate emergency is going to make oil worth less – something that smart investors have been warning for some time,” he said.

The reset is likely to accelerate BP’s plans to end its contribution to the climate crisis by 2050, which BP’s incoming chief executive revealed earlier this year. Looney is expected to set out detailed plans for BP to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero in September this year. The Times June 1

Abandon land for a less-taxing life

More and more technology entrepreneurs and software developers are seeking floating homes away from the distractions of pandemic life — and, perhaps, the tax authorities. Since 2008, the Seasteading Institute in San Francisco has led the charge while encouraging “aquapreneurs” to make grand designs.

The think tank was founded by Peter Thiel, 52, the billionaire American technology investor, and Patri Friedman, 43, grandson of Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. “The safest place to be in a pandemic is a seastead,” Joe Quirk, 54, president of the Seasteading Institute, said yesterday. “The pandemic has definitely accelerated interest.” Several start-ups are developing seagoing homes. Ocean Builders, for example, has Sea Pods far removed from the post-apocalyptic floating slums of Waterworld, the 1995 film starring Kevin Costner.

The fibreglass pods will cost about $195,000 (£155,000). They will be powered by solar energy and natural gas, with rain-catchers for fresh water. They are designed with hydroponic gardens, “living walls” of greenery and “smart” glass that serves as both window and touchscreen computer. Underwater rooms will be coated on the outside with a material that helps to restore coral reefs. Drone technology could deliver provisions from the mainland.

Some see ulterior motives. “It’s just an escape for the rich,” Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, said. “It’s not helping poor people.” Professor Newman, an author of a report due from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said seasteading technology “could be made to work but that doesn’t mean you do it”.

“If you’re able to have sustainable living on a floating island then you should be able to do it in every slum in the world,” he said. “We need people to invest in that, [not] eco-villages in the middle of nowhere.”

For him, the purpose of most escapes was clear. “If they’re floating in international waters, it’s about avoiding tax. Wherever they’re float them, it’s about avoiding responsibility.”

Those seeking to live on a seastead would need to ensure that their residence was more than 12 nautical miles off the British coast, putting it in international waters, where there is no tax. Determined citizens could try creating a micronation and being recognised as a sovereign state, but the UN does not recognise sovereignty for artificial islands or structures. The Times June 16

Farmer Jeremy Clarkson rages over chlorinated chicken and red tape

Jeremy Clarkson: After the First World War the government decided it wasn’t that bothered about farming and repealed the Corn Production Act, which guaranteed fair prices for oats and wheat. Industry was what mattered back then. We’d make trains and power stations and machineguns, and then buy our food from abroad. Which is why, when the Second World War came along, we were damn nearly starved into submission.

When that ended, it was decided Britain would, for evermore, be able to feed itself. Years later we joined the Common Market and backed French plans to put farming first.

Now we have left the EU, the government has decided farmers should no longer be paid to grow food. Instead they will get “public money for public goods”. In the short term this means I will only get a subsidy if I stop feeding people and look after the bees and the environment. In the longer term I won’t get a subsidy at all.

If I were a young man I’d puff out my chest and face the challenge head-on. I’d get organised and efficient and ruthless. And I’d declare from the top of my tractor: “Yes, I shall bring back the spirit of Mrs Thatcher. I shall stand on my own two feet.”

And then I’d get knocked down, because the government is taking away not only our financial support but also asking us to go in to bat with no box. Or bat.

At present there are a million rules in this country about how animals should be reared and how they should be transported, and these are enforced by satellite tracking, many forms and regular inspections.

Naturally this means customers know, when they buy a British chicken, that’s it’s led a happy life, suffered a painless death and isn’t drizzled in bleach.

Unfortunately, post-EU trade deals mean supermarkets can import chickens from countries where the birds were fed on human toenails, kicked to death as part of a bizarre sport and then drenched in chlorine.

It’d be lovely to think the customer will avoid these birds, but don’t fool yourself. Wayne and Waynetta won’t care any less, because they will be cheaper than the quality British alternative.

The Conservative MP Neil Parish spotted this and tried, at the third reading of the Agriculture Bill, to include an amendment that would have protected British farmers and customers from low-quality imports. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus, the vote was held remotely, which meant the fate of UK agriculture was in the hands of about 600 MPs who’d broken off from home schooling to chip in with their ill-thought-out opinions.

This means that, soon, British farmers will be asked to compete on the world stage, with no financial help, while having both hands tied behind their backs by red tape. Even now, I cannot sell a lamb I delivered and reared on my own farm in my own farm shop for less than you’d pay for a New Zealand lamb in the supermarket. When the basic payment scheme for farmers is phased out, I’ll be even more screwed. So will many thousands of others.

Right now Britain produces only 60% of the food it needs, and if you’re worried about that number getting any lower, you should contact the government immediately. Send your thoughts on a form, it’s the only language it seems to understand. Sunday Times June 14