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UK hardwood market was not in total lockdown in April, but activity was radically reduced by the Covid-19 epidemic.

Most UK hardwood companies had taken advantage of the new government grant scheme to furlough personnel. One leading importer/distributor said they had ‘downsized’ in line with demand. Others had shut their doors entirely, initially for three weeks.

“Some customers are continuing to operate for the time being, and we’re still getting orders,” they said. “Some construction sites are still working and joinery companies are staying open to supply them and there’s also DIY demand, presumably with people staying at home in the lockdown.

There were reports of some customers actually increasing orders early to mid-March, seemingly as a hedge against suppliers curtailing operations. But that came to a halt after government announcements of restrictions on public gathering and closure of restaurants, pubs and other amenities.

Smaller companies are also reported to be disproportionately affected by customers extending payment terms during the crisis, citing cash flow reasons. “It tends to be bigger buyers, so you have little choice but to comply,” said one agent/importer. Another business agreed. “Almost our sole focus currently is getting paid,” they said. Some companies expressed concern about congestion building at UK ports, with importers running out of storage themselves unable to take incoming cargoes.

However, one importer/distributor, which said they were continuing to take both containers and breakbulk from ports, thought this was not a ‘significant risk to date’ and that port operators might use nearby overspill storage areas if it became a problem.

In terms of supply, most companies consulted said that they were asking for orders not yet dispatched to be pushed back a month to six weeks. Overseas suppliers were generally reported to be accommodating.

Looking forward, UK hardwood businesses were not sugar coating the pill. The next three months, and possibly longer, are expected to be very difficult. “The profit we made at the start of the year has already been wiped out,” said one importer.

There was also an expectation that the pandemic would result in permanent changes; accelerating the trend to remote working, more online trade and less overseas travel and face to face supplier contact.

Inevitably, it is feared, the current crisis will also lead to job losses and some industry concentration. “This has not been a very profitable business for a number of years and companies have not built up a financial safety net, so there will be casualties,” said one importer.

“Hopefully, when we emerge on the other side, the trade as a whole will press for better margins. We’ve been selling hardwood too cheaply for too long.”

Other news from the UK highlights the vulnerability of the hardwood sector during the COVID-19 lockdown and its aftermath. Most producers and traders are small companies that sell into other sectors, such as high-end joinery and furniture manufacturing, equally dependent on smaller operators.

The problems for small and medium-sized contractors in the UK were clearly highlighted in a Federation of Master Builders (FMB) survey published on 17 April. Almost two thirds (65%) of small building companies stated that they would not be able to last more than two months without grants from the government while almost a quarter (24%) said they would struggle even to get through four weeks.

The UK government had announced over four weeks before the FMB survey that new loans would be available under the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). However, only 4% of builders who had applied for the CBILS had been successful.

The FMB survey also highlighted that 68% of builders had stopped at least 91% of operations and new enquiries had dropped by 64%. Of stopped work, 80% said this was due to lack of availability of products and materials while 65% experienced problems maintaining social distancing rules on often small, domestic sites. Unlike other European government, the UK government has so far resisted calls to loosen the country’s lockdown.

After returning to work on 27 April following his recovery, Prime Minister Johnson – the first world leader to fall victim to coronavirus – urged caution and gave no clue as to how or when businesses might return to normal, calling this the time of “maximum risk” of a second wave of infections.

Following his statement, and under pressure to set out a timetable for easing of lockdown measures, the UK government stated that this will happen only when five tests had been passed: the number of coronavirus deaths are clearly falling; the NHS is able to cope; the rate of infection is coming down; there are enough supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 tests; and the government must be confident lifting lockdown measures won’t result in a second peak.

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