Failing to plan is… The importance of contingency planning – The quarantine

Posted on 12 February

This week I discuss the importance of contingency planning.

I try not to criticise the government

In this bulletin I try not to criticise the government, firstly, as they are doing a difficult job under challenging circumstances and secondly, it is easy for commentators like myself to carp from the slide lines when I am not involved in the response and don’t have a detailed understanding of the task in hand. The news this morning was that the government is going to take 10 days to implement its plan for all incoming non-British travellers to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.

Setting up the quarantine scheme

A sensible precaution, when you think there are various strains of COVID-19 circulating in other countries which we don’t want in the UK. There is also the statistic that 20% of people are not in their place of quarantine when called on by the police. In the UK, we have the advantage of being an island so that we can control our borders and therefore quarantining overseas visitors is a workable scheme. To set up such a quarantine scheme takes lots of thought and logistics to be put in place. This includes finding hotels and negotiating the rates, there is the transport from the airport to the hotels to be organised, security guards to be hired, rules to be written, and contingencies to be thought through, such as what if someone falls sick for something other than COVID-19 during quarantine, where do they go to hospital? This is a complex situation to get right and implement, but luckily there are examples from around the world, such as New Zealand and Australia, who have been reasonably successful at making this work.

Why did they not anticipate that a quarantine scheme  might be needed?

Why does it seem that the UK government are scrabbling about when deciding on this strategy and how to implement the plan? Why did they not anticipate this as a possibility and put in place a contingency plan, which they could have on the shelf ready for the moment if it was needed? If we could make up everything on the day of a disaster and have a successful response there would be no point in emergency planning or business continuity, but as we know fine well, having exercised plans in place limits the impact of incidents, saves lives and money and shortens the length of the disruption.

Case study - Courier company plans verified by exercises

When writing this bulletin, I was reminded of some work we did for a courier company. We were rolling out business continuity plans for their parcel operation. They had lots of depots around the UK which picked up parcels from their customers during the day. At night, a lorryload or several lorryloads of parcels were transported to a central sorter where they were cross-sorted, put back on the lorries and returned to the relevant depot. They were then delivered to the customer the next morning. Part of our business continuity planning was to look at what the company would do if it lost a depot. The obvious answer was to send all the staff and vehicles to the nearest depot and operate from there. The issue was that as depots operated at about 80% capacity, there wasn’t room for another depot’s worth of parcels and they would become overwhelmed. Therefore, the plan written was that each depot had 2-3 designated depots it would split its parcels across. The plan was great until we exercised it!

In the exercise, we simulated the loss of the depot and simulated the staff and vehicles operating from their designated alternative sites. The lorries from all depots headed off to the sorter. All going well so far until the Sorter IT Manager piped up to say this plan will not work. The software in the sorter could only be altered to allow one depot’s parcels to be sent to another, it wouldn't allow the split across 2-3 different depots. We asked how long the change of programme would take and was swiftly told it would take 4-6 weeks. The long and short of this was if we hadn’t done the exercise and the contingency planning, we would have never discovered the flaw. The exercise was abandoned, and we could put in place the remedial programming which allowed any sorter parcels to be sent to another depot based on its postcode.

You have to do the groundwork

To have a contingency plan which works, you have to do the groundwork, which allows it to be implemented. Sometimes that work requires a substantial amount of time and effort. Without doing the work the plan will fail and your contingency dissolves into chaos.

We all know there is a balance between spending lots of time, energy, money and effort on a contingency which may not be used and at the same time planning for events which are fairly likely to happen and could have a large impact on our organisation. In this crisis, the government has lots of resources and money to spend so they should be developing a contingency plan or capabilities which they quite possibly want to implement.

Little contingency planning done for future possible incidents 

This seems to be a theme from the government, in that there has been little future contingency planning for events which can possibly be foreseen. The closedown of schools after Christmas is an example of this. There didn’t seem to be a plan for the implementation of this or the appropriate communications ready. As I said at the beginning, it is easy to criticise others, so we should all be looking at our own organisation to see what we can do now to make sure we can recover quicker than if we have no contingency plans in place.