However, John Tonkiss, the FTSE 250 group’s chief executive, thinks there are positives to come out of the pandemic.

He tells Property Week why he thinks now is the time for the sector to capitalise on the new found political importance and what he thinks government and industry need to do to drive the recovery not just of the senior living sector but the whole housing market.

How has McCarthy & Stone responded to Covid-19 in its retirement communities?

I was really quite concerned at the beginning of March that people over 65 would be locked down and the rest of the population would carry on.

I was quite relieved when the prime minister put the entire country into lockdown on 23 March, but we had already put plans in place in early March: a provisional lockdown and new control measures.

I’ve been incredibly impressed by, and am proud of, how the business has responded to the outbreak. Since I took over as chief executive, I’ve been reminding everybody that while we are the UK’s leading retirement housebuilder, we’re much more than a bricks-and-mortar housebuilder, which has been my narrative for the past 18 months to two years. We have 1,600 staff looking after 20,000 customers, with all the retirement living and extra care services that we provide.

How has the pandemic impacted you operationally?

We have obviously done all the work to provide care and PPE equipment. There were some early weeks where that was challenging, around late March/early April, but we got an entire procurement team out in the field to buy PPE. We had five to six people working full-time on it.

We stood down and furloughed all our production and sales staff, but more than 500 of our employees have provided a buddying service, including my sons here at home.

There are new opportunities and there is a significant unmet demand

The most vulnerable out of 3,000 customers, about 1,700 specifically, asked for extra support, so we delivered meal services, home delivery from shops and also medical supplies. We’ve learnt and developed a whole new set of service standards and models off the back of this.

How has your current financial position been?

I think the government has provided some really important short-term liquidity responses. The Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) [from the Bank of England], which we qualified for formally on Monday [1 June], has allowed us to invest confidently in restocking our building permits again.

What do you think the government should do post-Covid-19?

What the government first and foremost needs to do is intervene and stimulate the general housing market, not just senior housing. The easiest way to do that is through stamp duty relief. I think that needs to be on the table for the government in July.

I would like stamp duty reform for retirees downsizing, and the housing minister has acknowledged that this would be a really smart thing to do to benefit the housing market. When customers move out of their homes to one of ours, it allows two-and-a-half further moves in the ageing chain.

The Wicketts, Settle

Later living: The Wickets in Settle, Yorkshire, is one of McCarthy & Stone’s retirement schemes

In the longer term, we need planning policy here and specific planning requirements for older people and retirement communities. We and the Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) talk positively about the need to build more and to facilitate that through planning requirements and planning policy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 18 months or so talking to care ministers about the social care system to provide this third way, which we call independent retirement living. You have your own front door, your own independence, with the care and support you need. We cover an important gap, but it’s reliant on the adult social care system working effectively.

How can the senior living sector move forward following the pandemic?

There are new opportunities and there is a significant unmet demand that we can facilitate, if we’ve got the right government policy and supply-side support around planning in particular. 

The high streets are going to change immeasurably in the next three to five years. They were going to change anyway, and Covid-19 is going to accelerate that.

Whatever this kind of change looks like in 2025, we need to invest in and develop communities. Not the big cities such as Manchester and Birmingham – I’m talking about the small towns that will struggle if we don’t bring in investment to the high street.

I think that is going to be our biggest opportunity, quite frankly. There’s a role that retirement villages in the out-of-town setting can play.

How has your strategy as a business evolved?

Looking back to 18 months ago when I took over as chief executive, we did some really important things in terms of how to reset the strategy of the business.

One of them was providing new forms of tenure – to allow customers to either buy outright, rent and/or do a shared ownership scheme. That went really well over the past 12 to 15 months. We launched it this time last year.

I think we are still going to have a tough few months and quarters ahead

Our plan was to set up investment vehicles for those rental-like assets, and we were right on the cusp of securing that deal before Covid-19 hit. We still will do that, but we may need to think again about how we do it.

What are your expectations for the sector in the next 12 months?

I think we are still going to have a tough few months and quarters ahead. While we’re all getting back to some degree of relative normality, from going out in the garden to talking with friends and family and so on, we’re a long way from being out of this pandemic.

I would urge caution to policymakers and business leaders, so that we don’t forget the things we’ve gone through in the past three months and say: “OK, it’s all sorted.”