ALEX BRUMMER: Unilever’s commendable effort to help India fight Covid

ALEX BRUMMER: Government should follow Unilever’s fine example and do more to help India fight Covid

Chief executives prefer to look through the social circumstances in the countries in which they operate.

So it is refreshing that Unilever boss Alan Jope has taken to the airwaves to draw attention to the catastrophe unfolding in India.

Jope described the current wave of Covid in that country – a huge market for the Lifebuoy to Horlicks group – as a ‘human tragedy,’ noting that the world looks very different in Delhi or Dhaka than it does from London.

Plea: Unilever boss Alan Jope has taken to the airwaves to draw attention to the catastrophe unfolding in India

As the funeral pyres run out of wood in India, and the infections reached unconscionable levels, the attention of Westminster has been on wallpaper.

The UK’s airlift of ventilators and other equipment is barely enough to keep a ward functioning, let alone a hospital.

Underlining the paucity of Britain’s response is the fact that we are starting to see the consequences of slicing 0.2 per cent of the UK’s overseas development budget. The case for any of our aid going to China or to support an Ethiopian girl band is preposterous.

But it is hugely damaging that in the midst of a pandemic, Britain is slashing spending on life-saving clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects across the developing world. If anything, as Britain takes pride in its vaccine success, it ought to be doubling down on such projects.

The Unilever perspective on India is valuable because it is a key market. Revenues at offshoot Hindustan India jumped 41 per cent in the latest period before the current terrifying Covid wave. 

The local company embarked on a campaign, at its own cost, to vaccinate all of its 300,000 employees, along with suppliers and associates, against the virus as rapidly as possible.

Unilever itself has hired 58 full-time doctors, is running 42 ambulances and has acquired 87 oxygen concentrators to help its 21,000 direct staff.

For anyone worrying that Jope and his team might be neglecting shareholder value, they shouldn’t. 

The bounce back from the pandemic in the US, China and elsewhere delivered a global sales lift of 5.7 per cent, way above the 3 per cent-5 per cent target range. Investors are to be rewarded with a £2.5billion share buyback. 

That begs the question as to whether there is enough firepower should Unilever decide it was time to expand in the consumer healthcare space.

The short answer is ‘yes.’

Fantasy football

The squandering of £7billion of BT shareholders cash on television rights to Premier League and Uefa’s European football competitions is the doleful legacy of Gavin Patterson’s years as boss of BT.

Instead of a laser focus on delivering full fibre broadband, he chose a vanity project. BT could never compete on screen with Sky’s superior technology, and its line-up of pundits was always second best.

It would be great for his successor Philip Jansen if BT’s effort to find a partner or sell off of its team of soccer producers, rights and pricey experts raised some of the billions it needs to speed up fibre roll-out.

But the intrinsic value is questionable. Sports subscribers have fallen from a peak of 1.9m in 2016-17 to 1.6m. The landscape is changing so rapidly that no one can be sure where the chips will land. 

The European Super League may have blown up, but Manchester City versus PSG is always going to have a greater global pull than Fulham versus Burnley.

The other driver of change is technology and the surge in streaming formats in the pandemic. American cable subscribers can log into NBC Premier League coverage for next to nothing.

Comcast, owner of Sky, Disney and Viacom, is rapidly expanding steaming services, and everyone below the age of the millennials knows how to view their favourite team without paying endless direct debit subscriptions. 

If Jansen can bring the same focus to full fibre as Patterson did to his vacuous project it will be good for BT and Britain’s digital prospects.


In 2016, a senior WPP board member took me out to breakfast to explain that Martin Sorrell was worth every penny of his £63million bonus because he was not just a great chief executive but a media guru with a worldwide reputation.

Now his former employers are seeking to recover a £12million bonus from 2018, claiming Sorrell was leaking to the media when still chief executive.

That is what media stars do. The S4 Capital chief’s sharp response is to claim a case of ‘peanut envy’. Never poke the bear.