I think the problem all comes down to, certainly in the UK, our public and health services not being prepared for a Pandemic, and we are paying the price with the lock down. Don’t get me wrong, we are where we are, and if the current measures save lives by managing demand on our stretched health services, then I accept it. But we need to learn lessons and be ready for the next one without shutting down our economy.
Government pandemic planning assumed that most of the population would fall ill and get better after a few days, not having the economy in shut down. Wrong.
There was an NHS Pandemic exercise in 2016, which showed that we would have all the problems we are now facing in our health services. The exercise showed we would not have enough beds, ventilators, PPE, and that our health service would be overwhelmed. Sounds familiar? Nothing was done about it.
So, the lock down is mainly about stopping our National Health Service from being overwhelmed because we had no surge capacity. Even worse, we did not start doing something about it when we saw the outbreak in China start three months ago.
Many years back, an NHS manager was boasting to a journalist that they were aiming to make the NHS so efficient that there was never an empty bed in the whole organisation. They could not answer the question posed by the journalist about where the surge capacity would come from, such as that needed by a Pandemic.
We have 2.2 critical care beds per 1000 people - one of the lowest care bed ratios in the developed world. Germany as a European comparison has 8.3. Japan heads the league with 13.2.
The minute we saw China being overwhelmed, we should have been putting in place what we are now having to do - building surge capacity hospitals, ramping up ventilator and PPE manufacturing, etc. Doing it now is still better that not doing it at all, but it is not “just in time” planning. It is “just too late”.
In the UK we still allow foreign flights to come in with NO monitoring of arrivals. That is utter madness. People, who may be carriers then disappear.
Our pandemic testing regime is woefully inadequate.
In the UK NHS there is now annually a winter flu crisis (which kills around 17.000 people a year in Britain) it is often close to being overwhelmed with winter flu, but it always just about makes it through. People breathe a sigh of relief and things carry on with no lessons being learnt. And this becomes “the new normal”. In Project Management/Safety terms it becomes an “acceptable risk”. Until it bites you hard.
That is what we are now seeing.
We need to get through the current pandemic, but we need to seriously learn lessons from our lack of preparedness. If we do not do that then that is criminal.
So what do we need to learn
- A pandemic has happened. It can happen again, and we were caught with out trousers down.
- Our internationally connected world makes it very easy to spread
- We need better measures to slow it when we see it. Such as flight/immigration restrictions early
- We need to plan for surge capacity at the right time to be ready for the bow wave, not after the bow wave is swamping us
- That would mean plans and enabling contracts in place - pay companies with capability and capacity a retainer where, subject to a notice period, they swap from whatever they are normally producing to producing what is needed for the surge
- Better testing facilities.
And probably a lot more than that, but you get the gist.
I work in a complex project environment in my day job, and I know that humans get things wrong quite often. That is not a problem as you plan for it. Doing the same thing wrong repeatedly is not acceptable, and that is where bureaucratic structures are very bad in learning from experience. In these complex projects we do not want a standing army of the people or resources you need at a project peak, as we cannot afford to keep the standing army fed. We have a core team and the enabling arrangements to bring in staff from elsewhere in the company and/or contract staff where needed. We have project plans that show where we need surge capacity and we have planned for it. It’s not hard to plan for anticipated events. The next pandemic is a known unknown, not an unknown unknown. We know it will happen again, just not when. So we can still plan for it.
My big fear is that this pandemic will pass. The world breathes a collective sigh of relief and then it goes back to normal. If that happens we have failed to learn from the experience.