Coronavirus: The singular threat to businesses in 2020… or is it?

Rob WalleyReadiness, Resilience

Risk matrix

You would think that 2020 had been the year for resilience, but I’m not so sure. The 2017 National Risk Register stated that;

“there is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring” with “up to 50% of the UK experiencing symptoms, leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.”

Like many organisations we exercised clients against flu planning assumptions, but in recent years experienced client fatigue due to the relatively low impact of SARS (SARSr-CoV) since 2003, Swine flu (H1N1) since 2009 and MERS (MERS-CoV) in 2014.

COVID-19 exceeded all relevant planning assumptions and differed from the traditional pandemic planning model such as the societal impact, virulence and fatal impacts were beyond previous assumptions, with a much greater initial and medium-term impact on businesses. So, were we ready? Or perhaps the question is, should we have been ready for a more scalable response?

All Communications Down

As Resilience First identified back in February 2020 – is there another type of Corona we should be considering as a significant risk? Space weather or ‘Coronal Mass Ejections – CMEs’ has always been a causal event of interest to me due to the significant impact on telecommunications resilience. The scenario of a major collapse of our power distribution and telecommunications infrastructure would be unthinkable to many as we enter Week 35 of COVID impact, and yet it remains very plausible; the last significant disruption in 2009 caused 9 hours of power cuts in Canada. We may get as little as 12 hours’ notice of an ejection heading to earth, with the potential for power outages which take weeks/months to repair – planes to lose communications, emergency services radio failure, TV broadcasting impact, GPS failure – the list goes on. Plans are of course in place for the National Grid to respond to Met Office forecasts but there is little any earthly responder can do if a CME occurs. Some helpful planning advice is available in this report.

Terrorism – An Ongoing Risk

The 2020 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) issued today notes that deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year since peaking in 2014. The number of deaths has now decreased by 59 per cent since 2014 with conflict/war being the primary driver of terrorism, with over 96 per cent of deaths from terrorism in 2019 occurring in countries already in conflict. That said, the ongoing Manchester Arena Inquiry serves to highlight the importance of improving and maintaining our response to terrorist threats, especially in light of recent ‘lone wolf’ style attacks in European cities and the UK Threat Level from International Terrorism moving up to Severe in recent weeks. The critical lens through which organisations will be scrutinised after an incident will not adjust easily to the context we were operating in – the risks we are discussing are foreseeable with moral, regulatory, financial, reputational and operational implications if we get it wrong.

Business Continuity Planning

Within the resilience sector and amongst some clients we are observing a reluctance to plan, having been battered by a challenging year with COVID-19. From resilience and response arrangements with little to no time to plan for home working arrangements to IT and business transformation, stakeholder and staff communications all topped off with extensive business planning, pivots and shifts to meet new customer demands, it is no wonder we are all feeling a little fed up. Home working is held up by many as the panacea to workplace resilience, having broadly succeeded in assisting many businesses to maintain a high level of productivity. National internet, power and supporting infrastructure has held up well as businesses faced regulatory and customer pressures that were in many cases lower and almost uniformly affecting the population, customers, competitors and colleagues. How different would it be in other scenarios where the impact, perceived blame and demands are squarely on your own organisation and not others.

You only have to look at the existing National Risk Register to identify some of the potential disruptions ahead – and ask yourself two questions:

  • if they occurred at the same time as our response/recovery from COVID-19, would we be prepared sufficiently to respond?
  • Would our organisation be able to withstand and survive the consequences of concurrent incidents?

We support clients who are facing a number of ongoing risks pertinent to their operations: flooding, Brexit uncertainty for supply chains and deliveries, venues with specific fire risks, crowded places and terrorism, risk of cyber-attack amongst others.

Get in touch to see how we can support your business continuity planning and execution to ensure business disruption is kept to a minimum, whatever the next ‘Big Impact’ may be.