On contingency planning, the elasticity of time – and a reckoning to come?

I have a friend who has worked for the UN in a number of crisis locations. In his experience of helping to manage those crises, there is a constant. Time.

The passage of time changes the significance of events at different stages of the crisis. While there is still some time to go something being 5 days late is a pity but can be managed. As the pace quickens, 5 hours seems much too long to take a decision, and at the height of the crisis there is no way you have 5 whole minutes.

The obvious point to make is that the 5 days you lost (wasted) in the lead up to the crisis are gone forever. And when you are rushing through the 5 minutes the 5 hours seems (and really is) a luxury that you will never get back.

That’s the situation for the Government and the NHS now. There was a period – when the first death happen in Wuhan – when there seemed to be plenty of time. Now in early April, because construction is taking place 24 hours a day, there still looks to be time to complete the emergency hospitals in London, Manchester Cardiff and Birmingham. But in a few weeks’ time – if the ventilators are not actually in the wards, having  a pipeline for them to come in ‘as soon as possible’ will be too late.

The phrase ‘as soon as possible ‘is one that the Government uses many many times a day. And of course they have a point. Testing activity and personal protection equipment don’t just appear out of thin air. They need to be ordered and above all distributed and the failure of our Government to have them here and now is important.

But some question how they could have foreseen what was going to happen.

This is one of the reasons large organisations and Governments have contingency plans for all sorts of eventualities. And one of the eventualities that this Government has in its range of contingency plans is one specifically designed to cope with an unusual flu pandemic. There is a written and published document that the government should have been considering from the moment of that first death in Wuhan.

I remember, in 2006, being very peripherally involved in developing the plans for a flu epidemic when I was working as Tony Blair’s health adviser. Those plans have been updated on a regular basis. I have a friend who is currently going through them all forensically assessing the differences but what is certain is that there is a current contingency plan that applies in 2020.

Whether and how the Government have applied it since January will be an important issue.

I say will be because I don’t think now is the time to hold the Government to final account for how they prepared for this crisis. Now is the time – when every minute counts – to bend all our efforts to dealing with it. And importantly this is where the public are.

Many of my friends are puzzled as to why 60% of the public think the Government is doing a good job. (In the United States 55% think Trump is doing a good job with the crisis!). These numbers are high because for the public this is NOT a political game. This is a crisis in which family members could lose their lives and most people are genuinely afraid. Under such circumstances the question, “Do you think the Government is doing a good job?” is heart-wrenchingly difficult to answer in the negative.

We are in a crisis – the government is the only government we have got. If they are not very good at their job we are all in a much worse situation. So we really need them to be good. So good they are.

In a real fearful crisis that affects us all that is what politics is reduced to. Now we really need government to work. So we feel it’s doing a good job.

At the beginning of World War 2 the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was clearly not fit for the job. He had spent years trying to stop a war that he now had to fight.  Almost every week there was deep criticism of him and after a string of disasters, 5 months later, he had to resign. It took 5 months. And from May 1940 there was a National Government of both major political parties.

I’m not saying don’t criticise the Government. The current problems over testing and PPE equipment are critical and there must be criticism. And because of that criticism the Government will improve. These posts will certainly contain criticism. But don’t expect, in terms of politics, it will be effective until after this is all over.

It’s striking that a growing number of people are assuming that there will be a public inquiry into Government preparations and decision-making. I even know of some who are having to record all their phone calls as evidence for a future inquiry.

A wise Government would announce one and make it clear that they are not dodging accountability. But the inquiry will be then and not now. For now we need to improve every day how we as a society work with this crisis and leave the reckoning for quieter times.

There won’t be years and years for an inquiry because the chance of another pandemic is high, and we need to be better prepared next time from the lessons learnt. But don’t imagine that the entire country agrees with the policy of semi-lockdown.

The morning after the Prime Minister announced the policy there was a 2 inch banner headline across the front of the Daily Telegraph declaring “the end of freedom”. Containment for the mass of the population is an abrupt departure from the society that the Telegraph wants to live in. And, public inquiry notwithstanding, don’t forget the name of the paper the Prime Minister used to write for.