The UK Government published its national emergency response plan to the developing Covid-19 outbreak on 3 March. (See link here.) This plan is welcomed as setting a standard for the country to follow. It will no doubt make harsh reading for some with discussion of morgue facilities and school closures.

The Fear Factor

When discussing the topic, a few important factors need to be considered. The first is fear. This particular coronavirus has captured worldwide attention and action. As at 3 March infections have been recorded in 77 countries, with 3,131 deaths. So far, the WHO has been reluctant to class the outbreak as a pandemic, preferring the term a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ at the highest level, partially because it does not want to raise the fear level but also it believes containment is still possible. Whether the level of fear is reduced by avoiding the ‘P’ term that many people are commonly using is a mute one. Fear can only be tackled when there is full and honest conversation rather than briefings masked in semantics. Lessons from announcements concerning previous disease outbreaks like ebola are worth considering.

The Risk Factor

It is important that our reactions are commensurate with, and proportionate to, the risk as it escalates. This is not to underestimate the threat of the virus but the facts should speak for themselves. From early evidence, epidemiologists assess the mortality rate for Covid-19 to be around 0.5-1%. This compares to previous coronavirus outbreaks like SARS at 10% and MERS at 39%. Seasonal flu affects about 5-15% of the UK population, with around 12,000 deaths in England and Wales each year (and around half a million worldwide). Yet, around 82% of those currently infected with Covid-19 worldwide experienced mild symptoms while recovery rates were around 93% for cases with a closed outcome. The death rates were lowest for the under 30s and highest in the 70+ age group.

While these figures are likely to increase, and each casualty is to be regretted, it is important to keep them in perspective, particularly at this stage in the viral outbreak. The UK has not yet reached the cluster levels in other countries and containment seems to be working - for the moment.

The Response Factor

Early responses from certain businesses in the UK seem to be at a high precautionary level. Companies like L’Oréal have reportedly told its staff to avoid all international business travel until the end of March and others like Nestlé and Intel have also stopped all non-essential domestic travel. A few offices have temporarily shut their doors and told staff to work from home for the time being. As the outbreak may be protracted, a return to work may be several weeks away.

The impact of these early responses and the wider supply-chain disruption is reflected in the dramatic fall in the financial markets. A global economic downturn is perhaps the greatest worry. Yet, behind the big numbers lie smaller stories. Major companies rely on local coffee shops, restaurants, taxis and other SMEs to sustain their workers on an ordinary day. These businesses, often operating on tight margins, may well go to the wall without regular custom. They cannot afford to work from home and have difficulty self isolating. As a result, a return to normality may end up with a diminished local business community which will find it hard to recover its vibrancy. This is why community resilience should be an important factor in any business decision.

Good Communication

To reduce fear and bring the community together in the face of a national emergency, good leadership and communication are the most important elements. Calm, convincing and co-ordinated messages are needed from top management and government alike. A single voice of authority – not necessarily the CEO or a politician – can convince and coalesce many. It has been used in the past and should be used again. That single voice should reflect all connected organisations with a consistent message.

The message should also be cognisant of tactical reality. While the direction from both WHO and Public Health England is that face masks are unnecessary as they do not prevent infection, people take their cues from images around them – if others are wearing masks then people feel a psychological urge to do likewise. There are also the cultural and environmental angles of wearing masks. What is important is to send a clear message of how to wear and dispose of fabric masks for those who chose to do so.   

Having faced SARS and other influenza outbreaks, we still seem to struggle to learn past lessons. The hard skills associated with policies and plans are easier to generate than the soft (but equally important) skills of leadership, community, culture and communication.