Back in the long-forgotten days of the Millennium Bug, the DeliveryDemon was involved in a fair bit of contingency planning, basically identifying and documenting the actions which would be needed if a range of adverse occurrences came to pass. Even twenty years ago most large public bodies had pretty detailed contingency plans to draw on and adapt to suit the risks specific to the Millennium hype and scares.
Twenty years have passed and the concept of contingency planning is fairly mainstream. Mainstream means routine. Routine means a chore. Routine chores don’t get the same analytical thinking as do novel concepts. They get written, signed off, then put on a shelf and forgotten. It’s not clear to the DeliveryDemon if this has happened to public sector contingency plans. Having a Prime Minister making a maudlin announcement like a B-movie actor, – ‘Loved ones will die’ – does not engender confidence. If the contingency planning material exists, there should be facts to announce, even if those facts are only decision points. Instead we have constant statements which are quickly contradicted. And our irresponsible media love it – headlines galore, each scary enough to be clickbait.
What would the DeliveryDemon expect to see?
Obviously the NHS ought to have fairly hefty and well maintained plans, since they call on them every winter. Whether they have the resources is another matter, and not one which can be addressed quickly enough.
Logistics, as at the Millennium, is another key area. The UK, with its old and twisted road system is not an easy place to plan logistics. That is partially offset by the traffic reduction which has started already as people reduce their social contact. But a whole range of other factors come into play. Food and related goods have to come from somewhere and they are part of the infrastructure a country needs in order to function. That means a lot of HGVs going up and down motorways and through towns and trading estates. But successive governments have abdicated responsibility for this and left it to ‘The Market’ – the range of competing companies which form the food supply chain – to manage the logistics of getting food to customers. It does not work. Retailers forever look for ways to cut costs, JIT (just in time) supply is the norm, there is cost in reducing expensive shop space to create more storage space. The retail model has little contingency in it and that drives the need for supply logistics.
Panic buying and hoarding are human nature, and totally distort the demand side of the equation. ‘The Market’ quite simply cannot control that, not without some sensible support from those who are supposed to be managing the country. Yes, the DeliveryDemon is talking about rationing, but not in the way it was applied during the World Wars of the twentieth century. So far, we are told that there is sufficient food in the supply chain and the problem is the speed with which is leaving the supermarket shelves. That’s a pretty clearly defined problem to solve.
Of course it’s not the only problem. Much of the UK’s food comes from abroad and the agriculture and fishing sectors haven’t figured high on government priorities for decades. Dr Tim Leunig, economic adviser to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, is understood to have said the food sector was “not critically important” to the country’s economy – and that agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”. That’s looking like very bad advice now.
Already scarce items are appearing on Amazon – 16 rolls of Andrex for £49.99 anyone? Mothers relying on formula milk can no longer find it in the supermarket and the advice circulating is that it can be obtained from pharmacies but only on prescription – further demand on GPs and on NHS finances.
Of course, logistics needs people – to move, load, unload, deliver the goods. Two problems here. Those people are as prone as the rest of us to Covid-19 infections. And it’s in the nature of the job that they have contact with other people as well as the goods they deliver. The Army is well supplied with logistics expertise but it is certainly not an infinite resource and there will be a whole range of calls on its manpower.
Disruption of utilities and hygiene services has yet to be given much prominence. Households need power, water, sewage, more so when social isolation advice causes people to spend more time than usual at home. Hospital needs are even greater. As is the case for logistics, all these services depend on people, and people can get sick. So can their families and that means healthy people having to drop out.
One utility which has become much more critical in the last 20 years is communications. Today the internet is an integral part of most people’s lives. It’s a good way to disseminate news – and false news. It allows people to work easily from home. Social media enables people to keep in touch during periods of physical isolation. It’s also a channel for mass hysteria. That makes it important for the powers to be to have a trustworthy and informative presence through reliable media sources. That’s just not happening.
And underlying the need for good communications is a whole range of other functions. Telecomms companies provide the delivery mechanism – in this country still reliant on ancient copper wire technology for the critical last mile to houses. Internet service providers enable individuals to have internet access. Security companies provide all manner of protection for data, financial functions and the like. Banks use the internet to let people and companies manage their money. Online retailers abound – a great benefit to those confined to home. Email and social media create a venue for communication without the need for face to face contact. Content providers are a major source of entertainment when public gatherings in cinemas and at live events no longer happen.
In a well-run democracy, the government would have at its fingertips the management status of all these critical functions. Well-established plans would already have been activated to smooth over the most obvious disruptions. Serious consideration would already be given to the actions of other countries in the global economy, and the impact these actions have on this country. There is no sign that this is happening. All we’re getting is bombast and hyperbole and contradiction and obfuscation.
The DeliveryDemon has a message for our senior politicians. Think. Plan. Forget the vanity projects of a fortnight ago. Deal in facts, not spin. Drop the B-movie Churchillian speeches. Do the job. It’s hard? Tough shit, you could have thought it through when you went for the job. JFDI!!