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EXCLUSIVE: BHTA boss reflects on the market in lockdown

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Only in the role for a few months, the BHTA’s new chief executive, Simon Festing, reveals what life has been like so far in the job and what the association is doing to support its members as well as the wider industry.

How have things been through lockdown so far?

I would say overall this is quite an unsettled and fairly troubling time that we’re in. Of course as an association we’re making do as best we can with this new normal, working at home for example and we’re getting on fine as an association but our main concern is for our members.

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From an operational point of view, how have things been managed?

There’s been a huge increase of electronic information, emails and online meetings as you would expect, and of course many of the ways that we used to meet physically face-to-face, either in meetings or trade shows have been cancelled or postponed and we don’t know what the future will be so we’re all making do as best we can with this electronic communication.

It does actually offer some advantages so, many of our members it’s a burden for them of course to get around to association meetings and therefore by doing things online we can actually widen participation and include more of our members in our activities.

You’ve been in the role a few months now, how have you settled in?

It’s been a fairly traumatic start for me personally because I was only in the job a couple of weeks and things started to get a little bit fraught with the virus. Then we went into lockdown and since then we’ve been dealing with all of those very disruptive issues. Some of the topics that we’ve been covering have hit the national headlines, our members of course heavily involved in both supply and demand for PPE products, testing has been a major issue, a key worker status a big issue for member companies so I would say actually we’ve been pretty frantic trying to keep up with the massive flood of information,  essentially trying to keep our members abreast of the most relevant, detailed, and up-to-date information that directly applies to them to allow them to run their businesses as best they can.

What is your background career-wise before you came into the BHTA?

I’m a medical doctor from some time back but I’ve been involved in policy communications and then as a chief executive of not-for-profit societies and associations for over a decade. I’m really familiar with this as a managerial position, but the challenge I think with the healthcare sector and assistive technology is that it’s so broad there are so many policies we’re dealing with from the NHS, health and social care, the Department of Work and Pensions. There are just so many different policy areas and of course there’s retail, manufacturing, import-export, wholesalers, just keeping up with the breadth of the sector and trying to provide them all with the relevant information is a major challenge.

But I do think the members benefit enormously from having such a trade association that can keep up to date with those issues.

Do you think communication has been key in managing the association throughout lockdown and this crisis?

I think at this particular time it is as important as ever that companies can see the benefit of a trade association to bring them together, share information, take action on their behalf and basically give them value for what they get in terms of membership.

We have been extremely active in a number of areas for example having to write essentially an emergency letter to the NHS procurement team about some severe disruption in payments to some of our members and a lack of clarity around procurement and what’s happening during this crisis. In other cases we’ve done nationwide initiatives to keep consumers informed about wheelchair services. There’s just a huge flurry of activity and I think that members are always and rightly asking what is the benefit to be a member of a trade association and I think that now they can see we offer real benefits.

It’s not quite like advertising so they’re not going to see a certain and instant increase in sales, it’s not quite the same as insurance which of course there are problems with insurance not paying out at the moment, but it’s about working together for the long-term benefit of the sector so that everybody is better off if the trade association is working well and involving and engaging the members. It’s the members who benefit and it’s their trade association.

Do you think the work you’ve been doing over the past so many weeks will stand you in and the BHTA membership in good stead moving forward and out of this?

There has been a massive increase in workload during this time because of the degree of disruption and because everybody’s frantically scrambling around for the right information, just to keep their business model afloat, we’ve provided that generic information from government about support it provides and given advice to our members.

Most of the time we are though looking to add more value than that and really work on the specific policies that our members are directly interested in, whether that is how they can supply or get hold of the equipment for example or how they can make sure that there is continuity in the services they provide which could be going into care homes with the key worker status. For that, we’ve been providing just vast amounts of information to our members in response to their queries on all of these topics.

You brought together a number of the NHS Wheelchair Service providers, how did that work?

The BHTA has been very concerned about disruption to services from wheelchair providers during this time so we’ve brought them together in a sense as a super-alliance going beyond just the traditional boundaries within the association. We’ve had over 100 providers who have put their name up to an interactive map where consumers can go and see where they can get their nearest services with a proper explanation of what those services might entail.

There’s been a lot of coordination and a lot of advice around that. This is one of those difficult topics where we have sought to understand how we can go further and offer the entire sectors services but for those who are not members of the trade association, we don’t have the right contact details, they’re not engaged so we can’t communicate in the same way. I think that’s a great example of where there is such a clear benefit to being a member of the trade association.

ROCHESTER, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 19: A Conservative party supporter rides a mobility scooter decorated with a poster of candidate Kelly Tolhurst on November 19, 2014 in Rochester, England. A parliamentary by-election will be held in the constituency of Rochester and Strood on November 20th following the defection of Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless to the United Kingdom Independence Party. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

How do you think this has affected the industry so far and how will it do so moving forward?

I have to be frank, these are very troubling times for many of our members and broadly for the sectors in which they operate. Not only have we had this very disruptive lockdown, we’re now facing that what is clearly a big financial recession and we have the added potential instability of Brexit on the horizon where the talks are, at the moment, quite fraught and that’s just the obvious things.

Other challenges that will face our sector will be the continuing shortfall in footfall in retail areas and what that means for their retail sales. We are going to see almost certainly accelerating changes in NHS procurement, we’re going to see problems in financial viability of care homes, so there are all sorts of difficulties and challenges which face our members and the sector as a whole.

We’re going to have to work extremely hard to try and make sure that these things are put right. However, there are perhaps some opportunities on the horizon like the government’s review of the mobility sector and vehicles in particular where we hope we can get a good outcome for the sector. Mostly though it’s a set of challenges that are very real.

From the retailer’s point of view, how do you see this progressing for that market?

The retail traders have long faced the problem of gradual decline of the high street in comparison to online and that presents many challenges for a sector such as mobility where some of the high value, high ticket items are much more difficult to sell online. It’s also more tricky to apply a code of conduct and have an ethical approach which in the long term is going to be beneficial for all of us. This is why the BHTA runs its code of practice which is there to try and bolster consumer confidence in this market.

It’s more of a challenge now as footfall has declined and we simply don’t know for sure when it’s going to pick up. We hope now the weather is getting better and the virus is on the decline that things will improve but there’s an acceleration of this long-term challenge as how to maintain viable retail outlets. A lot of that is down to the business models and the nimbleness of our members trying to make sure that they offer what is relevant with the correct pricing and the correct approach to sales in those outlets. They’re doing the good work and will be there to help them with information and support as best we can.

And a similar question to that from a supply point of view, how do you think suppliers can adapt and move forward? 

Suppliers are likewise facing difficult times. I think in some cases some of our members are doing well at a time like this because they may be supplying products which are in high demand and certainly some of those have now gained major government contracts to supply PPE. It is something we’re very excited about that our members have been able to fulfil because the Government is looking for not orders of the odd tens of thousands but tens of millions so that’s great that our sector can deliver.

From this, interesting questions are going to develop quite soon as to where those supplies are coming from and whether they can be brought closer to home so that we’re not dependent on these distant overseas markets like China where we know there can be problems with supply chain disruption.

For others of our members in the supplier market, again there are there are quite a lot of challenges now and we foresee shortages of equipment because of this supply chain disruption and there may be cases like beds for example where there’s been a big increase in supply for example with the Nightingale hospitals. However, there is now too much product on the market so there may be some cutback in the level of new orders so that’s going to be challenging for our suppliers. The first and the best thing that we are offering is to bring the members together to coordinate and share information and intelligence internally as to how best to understand and cope with this new market reality.

Do you think that the new reliance on British trade can help countries within this country actually benefit?

There has been an interesting national debate now about these supply chains and did people really understand the complexity. We’ve now discovered their vulnerability to a supply chain disruption in this pandemic, this is an unusual situation but it does illustrate me the potential problems.

The reasons are fairly clear-cut for how this has come about in that those forests and companies are mass manufacturing these products at a lower cost than we have been able to do and that’s a global supply chain phenomenon which has been going on for decades now.

So, do we want to put that into reverse? There is certainly going to be a degree of that now as Government is going to be concerned about the security of suppliers of this type of equipment but how we go about that we don’t know. The UK still has a manufacturing base and as would be expected we specialise in the areas of the higher value-added, more specialist, type of equipment that’s more complex and difficult to either manufacture or transport. I would imagine many of our members could be thriving in those kind of areas of supplying the very high specification equipment. There’s going to be I think more confidence in general in purchasing within the UK or perhaps we might be talking Europe, where we would have greater trust that the manufacturers would be making them to specification so we wouldn’t be having these scandals of poor quality product. I think there will be an interesting shift but we don’t know how far they go because a cost is always going to be an issue and the Far East does have that advantage.

To conclude, does the BHTA have a plan of how it can help members moving forward from this for years to come?

I think it’d be fair to say that everybody was caught off guard by this virus and it exposed a plethora of challenges. It has accelerated a business model towards more online ways of working that will set off a whole lot of other challenges.

I think our mind is now turning away from just the short-term business disruption and onto those long term challenges such as NHS procurement, such as the shape of the retail market, such as ethical buying and selling when there’s more stuff done online.

We want to really be a very forward-looking association and try to identify the challenges for our members well in advance so that we can meet those challenges by the time they arrive.

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Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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