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Corona Diaries: keeping the milk unspilt

June 11, 2020

According to Professor Neil Ferguson, if we in Britain had locked down a week earlier than we did, 20,000 lives would have been saved. That may be the case. It might also have been the case that if Churchill had delayed the Dunkirk evacuation by a few days, we might have lost a quarter of a million troops. And if Marshal Blucher had arrived at Waterloo a few hours later, Napoleon’s descendants might still be on the throne of France.

Timing is everything, it seems. And everyone makes mistakes, don’t they? Hitler could have destroyed the remains of the British Expeditionary Force if he had allowed General Guderian to run riot with his tanks outside Dunkirk instead of ordering them to halt. And then where would we have been?

In the present case, it appears that the advice from the scientists was less than unanimous, and the government was less than decisive. But what will actually matter in any future inquiry will not so much be the missed opportunity to save thousands of lives, because Boris Johnson will be entitled to blame the fog of war, as he already is.

It will be what came next. The PPE shortages; the decision to put hospital patients into care homes without testing them for the virus; the gilding of many lilies over testing; the chaotic procurement efforts; the falsely optimistic claims over the readiness of the track and trace app; the chaos over schools reopening (or not); increasingly bizarre ordinances over the easing of lockdown, and the refusal of anyone in the government to admit any failings in their efforts to contain the virus. The latter is still going on. Lies, obfuscation and meaningless slogans.

Even today, it’s hard not to snort at the “achievement” of the NHS track and trace process finding 31,000 contacts in its first week in operation. The cumulative effort of 25,000 people hired to be contact tracers, therefore, is 1.25 people per contact tracer. True, it was the first week – it will take a while for the system to get up and running. But if productivity doesn’t improve, then either we don’t have the problem we thought we had or we’re wasting a ton of money on an ineffective exercise.

But perhaps we’re being unfair. After all, the government set up several temporary hospitals in a very short time. The NHS was’t overwhelmed, even though several hospitals, and the people working in them, were stretched to the limit. Measures were put in place to ensure that the majority of people didn’t suffer immediate financial crisis. The government is doing its best to stay ahead of a constantly-changing situation.

By and large, though, since the original sin of going into lockdown too late, it’s largely been playing catch-up. Though there’s plenty of point in crying over spilt milk, especially if you’re one of those made grievously ill or bereaved of loved ones, any future inquiry should focus on how to keep the milk unspilt.

Particularly, it should focus on the government machinery for dealing with emergencies, so that it becomes less dependent on the whims of politicians. It should look at the chain of command, methods of procurement, methods of communication and methods of prediction.

It should consider ways of dealing with any emergency, not just a health crisis. Nuclear, flooding, drought, war, civil strife, food, commodity and egergy shortages and so on. There should be a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, constantly updated, not just shoved in a draw somewhere to be dusted off in a time of emergency. Those plans should be regularly tested both by computer simulation and physical exercises.

Are these things happening now? Sporadically and on a piecemeal basis, I suspect. Does every government department work to a common bible of disaster recovery? Theory says yes, practice says no.

And disaster recovery is not just the responsibility of governments. All businesses in which we entrust our well-being should have them too. My business experience tells me that some have, some don’t.

On the government side, MI5 reacted well before lockdown and implemented its contingency plan. Tesco, according to its CEO, did likewise. By implication, others clearly didn’t.

This is not to suggest that there should be a one-size-fits all disaster recovery plan that should apply to all government departments, and another to businesses. Each organisation is different and has its own innate vulnerabilities and choke points.

But it is surely not beyond the ability of a reasonably competent government and civil service to create an effective universal standard for contingency planning, and insist that every department, agency and local government authority not only adheres to it but undergoes regular certification. Also, companies deemed strategic to the well-being of the country should be required to adopt a similar standard.

I know from experience in getting my former organisation certified under the ISO quality standard and also Investors in People that standards aren’t the only answer. You need your people to buy into them, and you need standards that are evidence-based, not just exercises in having the right forms in place at the right time. But it would be a start.

And if such an overarching government standard that is widely implemented exists – and wait a minute, we do have a Civil Contingencies Act containing plenty of fine words and fancy diagrams that purports to set out those standards – then it needs to be reviewed for its effectiveness, because it clearly isn’t working.

I’m not a fan of bureaucracy, especially when as a taxpayer I’m helping to foot the bill. But I’m also convinced that that the world isn’t becoming less dangerous. There will be more disasters, and we need to be prepared for them. The fact that the government appears to have based its response to the coronavirus on a plan designed to deal with a flu pandemic is a telling illustration of the shortcomings of current contingency plans.

If we can’t deal with the predictable, how will we cope with all the black swans out there waiting to surprise us?

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