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Pandemic Planning - What is a Pandemic Operating Regime, and do I need one?

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

Following the spread of Coronavirus throughout China and surrounding countries, Charlie introduces the idea of a Pandemic Operating Regime and why you should develop one.

After returning from Colombia last week and working on the new ISO 22361 standard which will replace ‘PD CEN/TS 17091:2018, Crisis management – Guidance for developing a strategic capability’, I wanted to write something on decision making during a crisis. With the Coronavirus having spread throughout China, and many of the surrounding countries shutting off their borders to Chinese travellers, I think this week we need to focus on pandemic planning.

I want to introduce the idea of a Pandemic Operating Regime (POR), explain what it is and why I suggest that you develop one. This is a very similar idea to the Brexit Operating Regime which I talked about in October last year. As a side note, you may need your Brexit Operating Regime on standby as we leave the EU today (Friday 31st January)!

I don’t think a POR is any different from a pandemic plan, but I think to describe it as an ‘operating regime’ is more encompassing. You implement a plan which you hope, if done correctly and if the incident fits, will run smoothly. More often than not, the incident is slightly different to how you thought it would occur, so I think an operating regime takes into account the ongoing operation in response to the incident, and the adoption of the response or plan to fit the nature of the incident. What we are discussing today in ‘talking about’ a POR is that at a certain point in the pandemic we are going to operate our organisation in a different way to ‘business as usual’.

In developing a POR, there are a number of steps we should take to make sure we are prepared:

1) Understand the impact of a pandemic on your organisation. When looking at the city of Wuhan and reading about the pandemic, it seems the streets are deserted and people are staying indoors. The Chinese authorities closed off the airport, train stations and roads, and have stopped the movement of people outside the city. Amusement parks and many restaurants have been closed down across the country and international flights by British Airways have been halted. The hospitals in Wuhan have struggled with the number of patients and have built a new 1000-person hospital in under 10 days. I suspect the Chinese government have a lot more power than the British Government to be able to stop the movement of the population, but there could be similar impacts in the UK if the pandemic was to take hold. In looking at the impact of the pandemic, the requirements for your organisation’s services may increase if you run a hospital or provide medical supplies, but if you run a chain of restaurants or an visitor attraction, it is likely to go down. Your customer profile in response to a pandemic may change. For supermarkets, there may be a lot more requests for home delivery or ‘click and collect’ and there may be sudden rushes for food, and if there is any type of local lock-down, replenishment supplies may not be available, or people may not be able to get to your supermarket to buy supplies.

2) Once you have decided on the impact of a pandemic, you must look at your organisation’s vulnerabilities. Is the pandemic going to affect your supply chain or the delivery of services to your customers? If there are less people, can you prioritise your services and what you deliver or the activities you carry out? This is where you can get even more value out of your BIA, use it to help you prioritise what to deliver, and to identify what activities you cannot carry out for a while. If your offices are small and dispersed, they will have a different risk profile from large, centralised offices. At this stage it is a good idea to look at any regulatory, industry or government guidance. If you are a hospital, the Government should be giving you advice on how to operate during a pandemic, although when I chatted to a friend who is a nurse at a local Scottish hospital’s maternity ward, she had not yet been given any guidance. One very useful piece of information the government can give you is their planning assumptions, which give the most likely and usually worst-case figures. Instead of arguing internally about what rates to use and either under or over planning, using the official numbers are extremely useful. Once they are published, it allows you to model the effect of the pandemic on your organisation. If you want a shortcut to modelling the numbers, Crisis Solutions have produced a very helpful spreadsheet which can be downloaded here.

3) Next, you have to look at your mitigation measures and how you are going to reduce the chances of your staff getting ill. A wide range of measures can be taken, but they should include:

a. Staff working from home
b. Stopping visitors
c. Cancelling face-to-face meetings
d. Self-certification of sickness and stating that if people are ill, they must stay at home and not return within a certain time
e. Prevention of face-to-face interaction with customers
f. Temperature screening of staff, although with this virus people are seemingly infectious before they have any symptoms
g. Increased hygiene protocols and cleaning

If you look around the internet you will find extensive information and lists on ways to mitigate the impact of a pandemic.

4) Decide how your organisation will manage the pandemic when you implement your POR. Are you going to use any existing incident management structure or are you going to develop a different one especially for the pandemic response? One of the issues you must also discuss is when you would implement the regime. I was employed by an electricity company a few years ago, and we did a huge amount of work in preparation for the threat of bird flu. We developed very comprehensive plans and a large number of actions to implement when the WHO declared a Phase 6 Pandemic. Like all good incidents, the actual incident when it presented itself was very different to what was planned for. The bird flu pandemic ended up being quite mild, and so all the measures which were meant to be implemented were never carried out. So, remain flexible on when to implement, but be clear under what sort of scenarios you would execute your POR.

5) Work on your human resource issues for the pandemic. Many of the issues during the pandemic are going to be people related. If you have a sick child or a family member at home, do you get paid or unpaid leave to go and look after them? There are a myriad of issues and I think it is worth at least thinking through some of the issues associated with a pandemic to buy yourself some time before it arrives.

I personally think as the Coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down, it is worth starting to think about the impact on your organisation and do some planning. This can be done quietly in the background within your organisation without panicking anyone whilst still making sure that you are prepared. I also think you should become an expert on the pandemic and make sure you are aware of the latest information and advice. A day or so trawling the internet will probably give you as much information and knowledge as an expert! This is an incident in motion and so it will be interesting to see how it pans out!

BC Training's tutor James Royds with the delegates from this week's BCI and bespoke in-house 5 day training course in Saudi Arabia - a fantastic week which 'exceeded the senior management's expectations'. Great job James!


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Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) - Should we panic?

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You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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