ALEX BRUMMER: Insurers are risking their reputations with their shameful attitude to Covid business interruption claims

Everyone who has had dealings with insurers knows how hard it can be to collect. That is partly because they have been so bruised down the decades by fraudulent and exaggerated claims.

But the attitude of insurers to claims for business interruption caused by the pandemic is inexcusable, and imperilled companies and livelihoods.

Government has been doing its darnedest to support enterprise with business rate cuts, VAT reductions, furlough and council grants. 

Callous: The attitude of insurers to claims for business interruption caused by the pandemic is inexcusable, and has imperilled companies and livelihoods

Callous: The attitude of insurers to claims for business interruption caused by the pandemic is inexcusable, and has imperilled companies and livelihoods

The banks responded speedily with Bounce Back loans and one might have expected big insurers to do the same.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) deserves credit for taking a group of insurers to the High Court where a 120-page judgment largely comes down on the side of claimants. 

Payouts could reach £4billion and be the difference between insolvency and survival for many enterprises.

It is impressive that the judgment has been handed down so rapidly. The FCA is now urging insurers to respond to the clarity provided by the High Court immediately before hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller businesses unnecessarily collapse.

The ruling is applauded by the Federation of Small Businesses and others but it is a measure of the lack of trust in insurers that they warn of little certainty as to when and if the payouts will be made.

Firms with standard business interruption insurance may not benefit. The response of insurers is worrying: several are studying the judgment and could appeal.

But there is an opportunity for big beasts such as RSA, Zurich and Hiscox to lead by doing the right thing. 

There can be no long-term value for insurers in watching existing and future customers going to the wall. Quoted insurers need to balance shareholders’ interests with those of customers.

The stock market has made its mind up about which way the wind is blowing, by marking up insurance stocks. 

Insurers went into Covid-19 with strong capital and solvency reserves and have benefited from a fall in motor claims during lockdown.

The industry will suffer reputational damage if it delays payouts or, even worse, decides to appeal to the Supreme Court to try to enforce the narrow wording of contracts. 

Even the shortest of postponements could kill off enterprise and jobs in defiance of the spirit of the age.

Archie’s ace

Long-suffering Marks & Spencer shareholders have not had much to cheer recently. Market share in fashion, with the exception of lingerie, has fallen of a cliff.

There have been musical chairs in the boardroom with too many golden goodbyes. And the group has suffered because it has too many stores in the wrong places.

Chairman Archie Norman took flak when he splashed £750million on a joint venture with Ocado, becoming the main UK grocery supplier for the online champion. The timing was almost impeccable, with Covid-19 and the great leap forward for digital shopping.

Revenues at the online grocer jumped 52 per cent in the 13 weeks to August 30 and that was before M&S’s range of foods, including popular ready-made meals, were loaded on to Ocado’s dumpy vans.

Online food shopping doubled its share to 14 per cent of the market in lockdown and Ocado reckons it could reach 30 per cent.

That should offer enormous support for M&S food. Previously, it couldn’t make the economics work online because its ‘top-up’ shopping basket was too small. 

Access to Ocado’s robotics means it can handle much bigger shopping baskets, and higher value produce means better margins than achievable by other grocers.

M&S problems are not over. Catching the fashion zeitgeist is much harder. Nevertheless it learnt lessons in lockdown about wiping out bureaucracy.

The biggest concern on the horizon is Christmas. Holiday ranges are in stock, but what to do if there is another lockdown?

Switching play

One of my sons is convinced wearing the Chelsea shirt when watching big games on TV makes all the difference to the result.

This does not appear to be a widely shared superstition. But games played behind closed doors have led to a 63 per cent drop in online searches for new kit in August.

Fans spent an estimated £23.9million on Premier League kit last season and platform lovethesales.com predicts a £15million drop in revenue. That might seem large – but it wouldn’t pay the wages of Kevin de Bruyne at Manchester City.

source: dailymail.co.uk

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