Friday 19th Apr 2019 - Logistics & Supply Chain

Pandemic planning

How have you been feeling lately?  There are warnings that the swine flu threat could grow again during the autumn, and if it does, the logistics industry could be particularly affected.

Excuse me asking, but there’s been something of a national obsession about health matters this year, what with swine flu threatening Europe. Of course, it’s easy to get health threats out of perspective – particularly if you take your news from the fish and chip papers.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no issue to address. In fact, doctors point out that flu pandemics arrive regularly like unwanted visitors – and when you least expect them. Previous pandemics wrought their havoc in 1918-19 (the infamous Spanish Flu), 1957 and 1968-69. We’re overdue.

As I write, doctors are suggesting that the swine flu outbreak is declining but they’re warning of the possibility of a more serious round of the illness this autumn. So why is this important for logistics professionals?

If there is a pandemic, it could hit all businesses. But if logistics firms are not able to function efficiently, it could have a larger impact on the economy than any other business activity with the exception of banking and financial services.

Logistics is all about moving the stuff we need around. If it doesn’t get moved, the rest of the business world grinds to a halt. As simple as that.

So what is the true nature of the risk – and how can it be mitigated? A good guide to planning here is the work companies put in when the bird flu threatened (but didn’t deliver) a pandemic in 2003. At the time, a government task force warned that firms could expect 15 per cent of their staff to fall ill at any one time.

But that was always a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation and, in any event, there were other factors which could have made the situation worse then – and could do this time. For starters, pandemics strike unevenly. There are always firms which are hardly affected – others where the virus rampages out of control.

Perhaps you believe you could keep the warehouse working or the lorry fleet on the road with 15 per cent of workers off sick. But add in another 15 per cent who have stayed home to look after loved ones who’re sick and, suddenly, you’re looking at nearly a third of your staff out of action.

In that situation, it would be very difficult even to pretend that it could be business as usual. What’s worrying about this pandemic threat – as with the last one – is how many firms don’t seem to have prepared for it.

There are a number of threats. First, if your customers are disrupted by illness, you lose business. Quite simply, they don’t have so many goods to move around. During the last pandemic, nearly a quarter of companies admitted they might not survive if their customer base was disrupted in this way for more than 12 weeks. And that was when the economy was booming. This time around, in recession, it’s likely that many businesses wouldn’t last 12 weeks. So logistics firms need a contingency plan.

They also need a plan if they can’t deliver everything that their customers want. Each firm will have its own way of tackling this, but they could consider two key principles.

The first: make sure you give priority to the customers that are most important to your own firm’s long-term survival. The second: when apportioning limited resources, focus on what’s most important for your customers. The important point – and the one they’ll thank you for – is if you can keep the most profitable parts of their business running as normally as possible.

There is a third possible problem should a pandemic go nuclear. That is government-imposed If swine flu does prove a pig of a pandemic, logistics firms that perform best will be those which take most care of their staff. restricted movement in certain areas with access denied to key facilities. It may seem fanciful, natural disasters such as flood and fire make that happen from time to time.

Firms that rely on one site only are most at risk. But even those can do something – ensure copies of key data are stored off-site so they can be accessed should the worst happen.

If swine flu does prove a pig of a pandemic, logistics firms that perform best will be those which take most care of their staff. I remember during the bird flu scare interviewing a courier company which had developed a detailed contingency plan.

It was planning to issue staff with face masks and latex gloves and provide lashings of anti-microbial hand-wash everywhere. It was also going to be very careful about delivering to firms which had been attacked by the virus.

Of course, it may never happen. But the business graveyard is packed with the tombstones of firms that thought it wouldn’t.

Peter Bartram is a business writer, journalist and author of 20 books.

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