COVID-19: Don’t peak too soon

In the last few days several things have become clearer about COVID-19. Asia’s response to the crisis (early “social distancing”) has been more effective than Europe and the United States’ unco-ordinated, more laissez faire approach.

As a result, Europe is now the “global epicentre” of the pandemic and the continent is hurriedly adopting a range of extreme social distancing measures. The UK, where the spread of the virus appears to be closely tracking two weeks behind Italy, has at last decided to follow them.

Europeans spent some of last week learning what the scientific concept “herd immunity” means. Angela Merkel predicted that 60-70% of Germans would get the virus and the British media were suddenly being briefed by Government on the subject. However by Sunday, Health Minister Matt Hancock was forced to deny that herd immunity (which can be interpreted as letting everyone catch the virus) was Government policy.

The aim of UK Government strategy is (currently) to delay both the peak of the epidemic and to flatten it, to “squash this sombrero” as Boris Johnson put it. As of last night, those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home are being advised to put our lives on hold, possibly for three to six months, possibly for longer. Those who can’t work from home and don’t work for the Government, face a very uncertain situation and many whose earnings are threatened need urgent Government help.

For those of us lucky enough to be paid and working from home, just as we don’t want the virus to peak too soon, we mustn’t either.

As Matt Hancock says “this is a marathon not a sprint”. We all know that we will spend much time working from home, but this shouldn’t become drudgery. Evidence from colleagues in Asia suggest that, after 50 days, this becomes a strain. Routines need to be flexible. Interaction with colleagues need to be frequent, organised and fun. As soon as we can, we need to be able to get back to the office. A plan that rotates days in the office adopted once the peak has passed may be a more sustainable regime than closing the office entirely for the duration.

Modern society isn’t about living to work, it’s about working to live and the things that people live for need to be reinstated as soon as possible. London’s theatres opened throughout the whole of the Blitz during World War Two but are now eerily shutting their doors. I hope this doesn’t irreparably damage this great industry.  In France, Ireland and Hong Kong horse racing has so far continued behind closed doors throughout the virus. In Great Britain, the industry is fighting to do the same. As the time of extreme social distancing gets to 30-60 days, all countries will need to balance the needs of society and the economy with health requirements. In England, that means that people will want their Premier League football back. For now though, as the country retreats to home, attention turns to handling the economic consequences of the pandemic, which for many people are much more threatening than the health impact. We will all have to work together to keep as many of our people and small businesses on their feet as we can.

Probably the area in which it’s most important not to peak too soon is communication, particularly to colleagues and customers.

In a crisis it’s important to communicate early, clearly and often – and many organisations have done that well so far. But we’ve already reached the point where emails on COVID-19 are being automatically deleted and there have been too many worthy, earnest communications with nothing new to say.

The key to successful colleague communication is to be creative and flexible – and communicate strategy and policy changes clearly, but keep “nothing new” communication to a minimum. Morale and well-being need to be maintained by a host of actions and behaviours of which communication is just one. For Governments of course this is different, for them clear and transparent daily communication is essential.

In 1939, the UK Ministry of Information designed the now legendary “keep calm and carry on” poster to be motivational for the population during the long haul of war. They printed 2.5 million of them but never used them as they later decided the message wasn’t motivational enough. But maybe that mindset is what we need now. For our health, well being and financial stability, we need to be highly flexible in our approach and put in place sustainable measures that can be changed daily, but could last months. Like COVID-19, it’s important that we don’t peak too soon.


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