straight to the point – from different points of view

COVID Planning

COVID Planning

Here we are, well over a year into the COVID pandemic. It has impacted us in ways that will be with us for years to come. At the start I was impressed by the stated position of the ruling administration. They called on us to pull together, all hands on deck in the national interest. They also sensibly created a committee that would chart a path to a bright new future post COVID. It would lead us through the day to day challenges of dealing with the immediate impacts and devise a plan well into the future, seeking opportunities that arise out of the changes brought on by COVID.

It is said, with good reason that if you fail to plan, you should plan to fail. So there we were in the cross hairs of a global pandemic and our administration had gotten the first and most important decision right. They created a mostly independent committee of experts to guide us on this perilous journey. We swim together or we swim together. I supported the decision and commended them for it.

I must also disclose that I personally volunteered my quarter century of expertise in leading large scale digitisation projects internationally but got no response. My clients down the years included Royal Bank of Scotland, G E Capital, Welsh Water to name just three. I made my approach directly through two prominent committee members but still got no reply. Nonetheless I still supported the committee and looked forward to their reports and recommendations.

I expected that having been created by no less a person than the Prime Minister, this committees reports and recommendations would carry significant force and would be the guiding light to take us through these troubling times successfully. But I also recognised that they faced tremendous challenges. Those tremendous challenges in fact made the work of the committee and our use of its output critical to our prospects for success. So what recommendations have they made? Have we followed them? And what has been the result?

I have seen two reports from the committee since its creation, both within a few months. They said a lot of what I had expected and again gave me cause of cautious optimism. I understood fully at the time that the overarching unknown that they were working with was the duration, severity and multi faceted impact of the virus. I can say with a great degree of certainty that almost no planner had anticipated at the time that the duration would extend beyond a year and that the economy would grind to a halt for extended periods.

The expectation, once the changes environment became apparent was for modifications to assumptions and recommendations. We seem to have failed twice over in this regard. Firstly, the reports of the committee made little attempt to forecast the nature, duration and severity of the impact of the pandemic. I expect that neither they nor any of the population imagined at the time that we would still be deep in the woods more than a year later.

The mere fact that we did not make projections about the impact with probabilities assigned to various outcomes was disappointing. Without such assumptions, decision makers usually react spontaneously (or not) to changes as these changes often creep up on them and go unattended fr far too long. That type of management then blames the changed circumstances for their failures whereas much of the blame should be assigned to inadequate analysis and projections. In particular, an event like this has cried out for professional Risk Management. We should have explored the range of possible outcomes, the probability of each and have a plan, even in broad outline for each eventuality.

What we apparently did instead when circumstances changed and the impact and duration were far worse than the unspoken assumptions, was to throw away the plan so carefully crafted by the PMs committee. I will examine just one aspect of the plan to see whether it was implemented.

The committee spoke powerfully about the need for and benefits from digitisation and digitalisation. What then is one to make of the serial failure to digitise the recording and analysis of data on new activities coming out of the crisis? We failed to monitor fraudulent double claims for grants at a reported cost of 8.1 billion dollars. Likewise, we have failed abysmally to use digitisation to record data about infections and vaccinations.

Both of these could only benefit fully if implemented in a centralised way with access from any site in the country. The disjointed and inconsistent way in which data was collected, analysed and reported was wholly avoidable and the committee had pointed us in the right direction. We failed to follow and even now most of us don’t appreciate how grave is the failure.

I will touch briefly on one example, contact tracing. At very many establishments, the proprietors follow the guidelines and have visitors document their names, cell phone numbers and date and time of visit at a minimum. I’m sure we all feel good that they have followed the guidelines but it serves little purpose.

Suppose that I visit Belmont Bakery on Thursday and succumb to a bout of COVID on Saturday. Since during the intervening period I was unable to speak with anyone, how will contact tracers know that I visited Belmont Bakery. The folks at the bakery have no knowledge that I contracted COVID, and the contact tracers do not know which shops I visited. Without a centralised data capture facility that consolidates all contact data we could not possibly achieve effective contact tracing.

I have skimmed some of my concerns today. The country has no plan going forward and the administration is making it up as we encounter each bend in the road. Is it too much to ask for a revised plan from the Roadmap to Recovery Committee? “Being in this together” should be more than just a slogan. We need our very best expertise more than ever to put us truly back on the road to recovery. Perhaps I will find the space to deal with some of the pointed issues in the recovery later. That might include the balance between public and private economic activity coming our of this period.

My message today is that we need to plan and to commit to following our plans. We’re still apparently placing political decision making ahead of the recommendations of this august committee to the great detriment of the nation and our chances of emerging strongly from the crisis.

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