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This week, Charlie discusses pandemic plans that were suggested back in 2006, and how they compare to the actions that were taken during the height of the COVID pandemic.

I came across the booklet ‘Flu Pandemic Guidelines for Businesses’ produced by Survive when we were moving our office. I thought it might be interesting to look at Survive’s assumptions about the flu pandemic, and look at which ones they got right, and where they were pretty wide off the mark as we start to emerge from COVID. This week I am going to look at the assumptions and save the general planning guidance for another week.

Survive was an organisation preceding the Business Continuity Institute and ‘Flu Pandemic Guidelines for Businesses’ was a booklet they produced on flu pandemic guidance. I believe that their booklet was published in 2006 as one of the adverts is dated as being produced in 2006, but there is no actual date on the booklet. Around this time we were being told that a pandemic was likely and was going to be the H1N1 flu and a ‘bird flu’. At this time I was employed by Scottish Power and we did a considerable amount of planning for a possible pandemic. In the end, the pandemic arrived in 2009-10 as the ‘swine flu’ which started in Mexico, but didn’t have a huge impact worldwide.

So, how do the assumptions in the booklet compare with the impact of COVID-19? In the booklet, there was much talk about the impact on organisations and what preparation they should implement and prepare for. The biggest divergent from their assumption of what happened is the government imposing a lockdown and making us all work from home. In the booklet, it did talk about the possibility of schools being closed and the impact it had on people’s ability to go to work but on close reading, it didn’t presume that this was likely to happen.

The assumptions they got right were:

1. The likelihood of the flu spreading quickly around the world taking weeks, not months as it took the Spanish Flu to spread globally. The impacts described in the booklet were on a global scale.

2. No one will be immune! Even New Zealand who pulled up the drawbridge and cut themselves off from the world had a number of outbreaks.

3. Medical solutions are limited. This was true and they did envisage a vaccine being produced, but taking three to six months rather than just under a year which was the case for the COVID-19 vaccine.

4. Working from home was mentioned as a way of reducing cross infections within the workplace, and therefore reducing the chance of catching the disease on the commute to work, and at the office. The idea that we would have a complete lockdown, and all will be sent home to work was not envisaged.

5. The need to identify critical products, services and processes. These were identified by many organisations right at the beginning of the pandemic. Once organisations were well into the pandemic, it quickly became evident that there was a need to get back all activities, and organisations couldn’t follow their staggered recovery as detailed within their BIA.

6. They were dead right on the losers and winners of the pandemic as shown in the table below.

Labour-intensive industries and countries
Insurance and equity market investors
Luxury goods, non-food retailers, shopping malls
Pharmaceutical companies
Home entertainment and media
Cleaning product manufacturers
Freight delivery

7. Productivity and motivation. There was recognition that people would be disrupted by the pandemic, and may struggle with absent managers and supervisors or post-viral lethargy. I think people were working successfully from home without close supervision, but productivity and motivation in some may have been affected by mental health issues associated with the pandemic.

8. The sharp decline of face-to-face business meetings and how these would be curtailed or disappear. They say that the impact of this would not be great due to the trend of teleconferencing. The era of video conferencing was not envisaged!

The assumptions they were wrong about:

1. There was a lot of discussion on attack rates and how many people could be off at any time. The booklet gave the example of percentages for staff off across the whole organisation during the peak period:

a. As a result of illness 5%
b. As a result of caring for family 7%
c. Other flu-related reasons 3%
d. A total absence of 15%

As people could work from home, I think there was less of an impact and people were able to juggle childcare and working, and as I did when I got COVID 3 months ago, work from home with only a little impact.

2. There was little mention of people who had to be quarantined after contact with someone ill. This had a massive impact on organisations, especially those who couldn’t work from home.

3. The “infection will not affect everyone simultaneously”, this was true but due to lockdowns, although the actual disease may have not affected everyone simultaneously, the lockdown did. Therefore the idea of “the same work can be carried out in a different location” didn’t work.

4. Government guidance quoted in the booklet said that the most likely rate of infection was 25% (clinical attack rate), and 0.37% (case fatality rate) which in England and Wales translates to 13m clinical cases, and 50,000 excess deaths. According to the Office for National Statistics, today, there were approximately 180,000 excess deaths. This pandemic was roughly four times worse than anticipated. The clinical attack rate is 20m so this is double what was suggested in 2006. Luckily, this was not the worst-case, based on the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which was a clinical attack rate of 50% and a case-fatality rate of 2.5%, which would lead to 600,000 deaths.

5. The booklet talks about a “second wave and possibly a third”, but looking at the troughs of infections, we seem to have had a lot more waves than that. It talks about the second wave maybe being more severe, but by then there should be some immunity in the population. As COVID-19 has mutated a number of times, a number of people I know have had the disease two or even three different times.

6. In the booklet, there is an advert by Roche to speak to them about getting antivirals for your staff. I am not sure what happened in other countries, but in the UK the use of antivirals and vaccinations were completely controlled by the government. It wasn’t possible for individuals and companies to “jump the queue’, and procure these items for their staff.

My conclusion is that many of the tactical and operational impacts were envisaged by the booklet, but the idea that the government would close down the country and send everyone home was not contemplated. The booklet saw those who could come to work, would work, and if you were at home, you were either ill or caring for someone who was ill. There was no mention of mass testing, face masks, and social distancing all of which are associated with COVID-19. So, the main lesson for all of us to take away is that however you plan, the incident will not always fit the plan, but it is better to have some preparation in place even if it is not all correct rather than having none at all.

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