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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Payne

Ready for lockdowns 2 & 3?

What I have noticed recently is no consultants or businesses have been openly discussing the need to prepare for a second and possibly third lockdown, but only planning to emerge from the current one, as if one was all there was going to be and after which society was simply going to make a progressive transition back to normal life using social distancing. Perhaps they think that future lockdowns will be much later on and they can be planned for nearer the time. It seems to me more likely than not that a second lockdown will happen and even if it was less likely we should certainly be making contingency plans for one, but why is a second lockdown on the cards? Noone is talking about one in the press or at the government briefings, yet many other countries have had 2nd and 3rd lockdowns and countries like Germany are on the verge of a 2nd one very soon after they eased restrictions. Time may not be a luxury we have before it happens either.

I have read up quite a lot on the science behind the pandemic, scoured websites trying to get my head around how these viruses spread and how you contain them, if only to scratch the itch that many of us have, when will this end? How will this end? In tandem, comparing that then to what the government has been telling us will happen has been interesting. Being a politics student many moons ago, I know in detail how the government tells the British public very little about what’s going on about anything, doesn’t trust them with the truth and is very particular about the language it uses. There was an accountant I used to work with who often used to remind me, the government thinks “the average man on the clapham omnibus is plain stupid”.

Believe it or not politicians very rarely, if ever lie, it would be too costly an error to make. You told us A, when you knew it was B? So, to avoid having to, they manage flows of information either by carefully selecting key words to use in advance and/or not telling the truth. How many times do you hear journalists say, “Will you please just answer the question?” Not lying and not telling the truth are two different things, but managed correctly, mean that they can carry out briefings and provide updates, without compromising themselves telling fibs, but at the same time protecting the information that they don’t want the public to have. In essence talking, but not saying very much at all. Classic nanny state politics. The problem is however is protecting the public from the truth, in trying to maintain confidence in business and the economy, in avoiding civil unrest and panic, the public have been brainwashed into thinking the pandemic is something that it is not. Nearly over. A false dawn is on the horizon as lobbyists rush to make their claim to get back to work, to business as normal (and we promise we shall observe social distancing they all say. The magic plaster covering the gaping wound.)

The flow of information in these 5pm coronavirus briefings that then disseminates into the national media is the personification of this art form of smoke and mirrors, you just have to listen very carefully to what is being said and then see how that is then misreported in the press. Take for example the nightingale hospitals. Someone asked the other day a question that basically suggested the government advisors had maybe got it wrong in rushing out to build these hospitals, as cases were dropping now, we are into May, and the hospitals were empty. During the 5pm briefing the government responded saying the hospitals were on standby and it hoped that they would not have to be used in the future. Over the coming 24 hours, various press outlets reported that the government has said the hospitals won’t be needed in the future, suggesting of course that the worst is over. Lots of encouraging talk of past the peak, cases dropping, hospitals not needed, lockdown relaxed, here comes the false dawn.

Now the government was extremely specific in the words it chose, it hoped that the hospitals would not be needed. Well that is a nice sentiment to have. I hope for lots of things as well, including the continued good health of all my family and friends, however, I know that some of them will get ill during this pandemic, and whilst no one likes saying it overtly, statistically I know that some of them are going to die. Likewise, the government knows only too well that these nightingale hospitals are going to be needed and for some time to come. They know pretty much how this pandemic is going to play out, how long it is likely to last, how bad it may well get, but if you notice they refuse to talk about anything further forward than the coming weekend. Easy to explain away, they want to be guided by the daily stats, keep their finger on the pulse. Fair enough, but they have also had briefings from the very best virologists in the world for some weeks now explaining to them what is more than likely going to happen. They can’t trust the public with the truth though. It could crash stock markets, cause civil unrest, the suicide rate to spiral if they laid it on the line, warts and all.

So, to the science, what could happen then that they haven’t spelled out and how are pandemics stopped? They can’t be, that’s it. This lockdown and social distancing policy can’t stop it, it is simply in place to stop our hospitals from being unable to cope. Imagine a powerful fire hose whipping and snaking uncontrollably all over a road pumping millions of gallons of water down the street. Social distancing and the lockdown it just the way of the government wrestling the hose, being able to turn the lever on the hose off, to gain control so the water stops coming out and we don’t get flooded. When the lockdown ends, and the lever turned on, water will start coming out of the hose once more. So, what does this mean could happen? What are the possible outcomes?

Let’s look at the definition of a pandemic for a start. A disease that spreads affecting an “extremely high proportion of the population”. Far less than 1% of the population have had it so far, so either we have a long way to go, or someone got the definition wrong, and we should call it something else if it is nearly over. Isn’t it possible that it could nearly be over though, that everyone infected in the UK is either better, dead or in hospital, so in actual fact there is no longer a virus carrier in the population? It is theoretically possible that a virus can be snuffed out in this way, but not so early in its course and not when we are far too late in dealing with it when it started in Europe in December, and no one has any idea who has been infected or who has recovered. The virus spread for four months unchecked, and it is now many of those people who are the ones that have died. Being a glass half full person, I look for the positives in any situation and whilst I would of course welcome this as a possible outcome, equally as a realist I know it is not likely.

Statistically, the chances of everyone sat at home now all being virus free are so small that you wouldn’t put any money on it if it were a horse in the Grand National, and not many would bet their life on it. Too many people are also violating the lockdown and social distancing policy to some breath-taking lengths. This snuff out theory does not also deal with the question of international travel for the next 12 months or so either until a vaccine is available. The UK would have to remain as a country in lockdown that whole time. With all the illegal immigration that is still taking place and the excepted travel for certain people the chances of the UK remaining virus free for that length of time is again infinitesimally small. We have to plan for the fact the snuff out theory won’t happen.

What do the virologists say? Well this lockdown has to end soon as the economy will collapse or there will be civil disturbance, or people will simply ignore it or a mixture of all of these is more likely. There is also a need in what feels like a morbid twisted way the need for people to get the virus. It isn’t going away. Everyone needs to get it or be vaccinated. The quicker we get to the fabled 60% herd immunity without overwhelming the NHS, the quicker this will be over. That has to be balanced of course with protecting vulnerable groups. Herd immunity cannot be such a holy grail pursued with so much vigour that millions die trying to find it.

So, the lockdown starts to end in May as most predict, and the firehose is turned on. The trouble is, ideally the government just want to turn the hose on slowly have it trickling down the street, not pointed at houses where vulnerable people live, just a few thousand more cases at a time, but the hose is either on or off, there is no option to determine the force at which the water comes out and it is so fast that by the time you have even thought about when to turn it off, the hose is already snaking from side to side and water had already overflowed down the street in every direction. The only way to control the flow and direction is to wrestle the lever on the hose off again. Lockdown 2. My analogy, the virologists prefer bush fires, setting light to bush land and then trying to control the direction and pace at which the fire spreads. You can’t, you can only put it out, which is why they say it cant be controlled, it spreads too fast and in unknown directions, you cant track it, and because you cant track it, you don’t know how many new infections exist from one day to the next, which is then why most predict there will be a bigger second wave, and a good chance of a third as has happened in countries ahead of the UK on the curve. Pandemics work in waves and are predictable. Wave 1 is where a country becomes infected by a virus brought from overseas. We are almost through that phase. Wave 2 is where the virus spreads through the indigenous population having been passed on through communities unbeknown to its presence. Wave 3 could be a possibility after a second lockdown depending on how many people were in wave 2, and how long wave 2 lasted. Theoretically there could be waves 4 & 5.

This is what the government knows but is not telling the public. Therefore, the government hopes that nightingale hospitals won’t be needed, but unless the world’s best virologists have all got it wrong, they will be needed, and may well be stretched to breaking point. The concern though is there are too many people already campaigning to get back to the office so they can start the wheels of commerce turning again, one estate agent has even reopened his office already in lockdown. I am not critical of these ambitions or their lobbying, but it does possibly suggest they are either ignoring the gravity of the situation or have been blind sided by all the briefings, when social distancing is no silver bullet, it will not stop a new wave of infections, perhaps just slow its arrival slightly. However, social distancing does seem to be used in all these public demands as a Get out of Jail Free card. Let us be among the first to get back to our office and we promise we will socially distance. It is not a solution for three reasons.

Firstly, people are really bad at it and there is no way of enforcing it. It’s a common discussion for people and most people I speak to have their 2m bubble invaded several times every time they go out. Friends in central London tell me they are scared and feel like they are on the Gladiators TV show every time they venture out to the shops. The pavements are busy with people and they feel they have to bob, duck and weave to maintain their 2m privacy bubble from people moving into it. And this is in lockdown, wait until its lifted, and there sometimes won’t be space to socially distance from other people, especially if we come into some fine weather in the summer.

Secondly, there are certain situations social distancing and cleaning isn’t practical or commercially viable. Many industry figures have come out and said honestly that if you engage in a particular activity you have to accept there will be an element of risk as social distancing isn’t possible and be able to disinfect every surface every time it is touched will need a biblical size army of cleaners. Take the boss of Heathrow. The queue at boarding for a 747 would be 1km long. Can’t be done. Cleaning door handles or commonly touched surfaces in an airport every 10 seconds every time one is used. Can’t be done. The home removal industry for sellers and buyers, many have come out and said you cannot move the contents of a house without risking infection. You can’t disinfect the entire house and its contents, and you can’t remain 2m from other people. Can’t be done. There are many more examples, buses, trains etc. The population is too large and too mobile for it to be practical to take place everywhere all the time, nor the endless repetitive cleaning, there aren’t enough cleaners and it would be too expensive to have a cleaning army even if you wanted to do it.

Thirdly, any recommended guidelines will not be followed to the letter even with good intention as there is a naivety, even stupidity out there with some, and a desperation to get businesses open at any cost for others. Take the NAEAs recommendations this week for Estate Agents' social distancing. One of them is to have a one door in, one door out policy. Most estate agents offices only have one door, why do they not know this? I will put money on the fact that Agents with one door will still open though.

So yes, prominent Estate Agents as an example in this last week have promised to social distance in their offices if they are allowed to return to them, but the virus will spread at pace when the fire hose it turned on, as infected people will still be walking into their offices, having just come from Heathrow or meeting one of the 400 people on average each person infects when a carrier, door handles will be missed, keys won’t always be sterile, mistakes will happen, they always do, we all make them. With some good practice, cleaning, perspex screening, it may happen at a slightly slower pace than if we all went round hugging each other granted, but there has to be some caution with how many people are redeployed. The only way to really slow the rate of infection is to keep as many people at home as is practically and commercially possible. The question for businesses shouldn’t be how many people we can get back to the office, but how many can we keep at home, reluctantly deploying and rotating essential staff members where they are required. How can we better exploit innovations in IT so that we can still run our businesses, provide a product or service, but at the same time protect our staff and customers? Wave 2 is coming, people’s behaviour during it will determine whether how soon before we get to lockdown 2.

Coming full circle most chat and webinars I see talk about exiting this lockdown and preparing for a brave new world, one where social distancing rules and a new way of doing business will take shape, one that businesses need to understand and plan for of course, and work that should have been done already. What is their proposition once they reopen for staff and customers, what are the objectives for the business month by month, quarter by quarter and what strategies will be used to make sure those are achieved? Which staff, which offices, which services, how are people to be paid to reflect the changes? Many of these may have changed for property businesses, different models emerging where market share and pipelines have been decimated, where survival may actually be the overarching objective for the coming weeks and months, with then further KRAs then identified to make that a reality.

One part of any contingency planning has to be a second lockdown though, just as some thought should also be given to the snuff out theory, it is possible however small. What happens if we lockdown again in June, July or August? What did we learn from the first lockdown, what went well, what could have gone better, will the time of year make a difference, will there be different pinch points, what preparations need to be made? Financial forecasting and cash flow models need to reflect the different permutations. Each business will have their own data now on the drop off in business from the first lock down, any additional costs or savings, so different models can be designed to reflect whatever outcome takes place with some assumptions made on these numbers that will then help drive some of these decisions.

Some decisions that businesses may want to make if there is a second lockdown may not be possible, so best to understand what may be possible now well in advance so the panic stations endured the first time around can be avoided. Different decisions will need to be taken in a second lockdown as well. Businesses were stronger at the start of the first one, had different experiences and different expectations of how long things may last, partly because of the lack of clarity on potential outcomes. A second lockdown will crystallise this reality though and instead of mothballing, some more difficult decisions will need to be taken as to amputate some parts of the business for the rest to survive. Could any parts be sold for example whilst they still had value? Whilst time is a luxury, it is prudent to get all this planning done now.

As I write this there is a viral leak doing the rounds that shows the government may have a 15 week phased reintroduction of normality which would help us avoid a large second wave and second lockdown, fewer deaths, less economic damage. If it is true, I sincerely hope they are more candid with our progress during this next phase so that people follow the guidelines more closely than they have been doing in recent weeks, so we can all put our contingency planning to one side and look forward with a little more certainty than we have been able to for some time.


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