A decade ago, in March 2010, the UK government launched the second version of the National Risk Register. The top risk was ‘Pandemic Human Disease’ — higher in terms of combined likelihood and impact than any form of terrorist attack, severe weather, or major accident. This remained the case in the 2017 edition of the National Risk Register.

The severity of this assessment placed pandemic human disease on the risk matrix for my own agency business, forming part of our ongoing business continuity planning.

In late December, 2019, and early January, 2020, news reports began to cover a novel coronavirus in Hubei province in China. With pandemic on the radar of risks for the business, we monitored news reports closely for updates on the outbreak, assessing them for incidence rates and transmissions.

We alerted organisations to begin updating their business continuity plans:

In mid-January China announced an alarming rise in both cases and deaths, and soon after put the 11 million citizens of Wuhan city into lockdown, the first clear sign that a global pandemic was highly likely.

On 22nd January 2020 we decided to activate our pandemic plan.

We wrote to staff, in a Slack announcement in the first instance and then later in more detail by email, explaining the likely things ahead and how we were planning. We emphasised the need to follow government healthcare advice. We described what to do if feeling unwell. We put limits on travel to essential journeys only. We explained about the potential for a lockdown period. We asked them to build up two weeks of emergency stocks at home as there would likely be supply chain disruptions in coming months — even if that was just as a result of panic buying, we emphasised the responsibility to be prepared ahead of time rather than be part of that. And yes, we did advise stocking up in advance on household essentials like toilet roll, because that’s the kind of thing people panic buy.

We wrote to clients explaining the risks we’d identified and advising that a lockdown with mandatory homeworking would be likely in future months. We provided key client staff members with 4G WiFi dongles in preparation for this, so they could work from home even if their personal broadband connection had issues. We also provided client organisations with training and consultancy to prepare to work from home.

I also publicly tweeted this thread with a range of advice on what to expect and how to prepare, including building up a small emergency stock cupboard to deal with supply chain disruptions...

And, with great reticence, we put our growth plans on hold, pausing and then cancelling recruitment to new positions. We focused on increasing our cash reserves instead.

In practical terms, we put ourselves into a lockdown a week in advance of the UK national lockdown that began on 16 March, 2020.

We’re very glad we made these preparations: it meant that when the national lockdown happened we were ready, our team was ready and our clients were ready. We had planned. We were prepared. That gave us the ability to respond quickly, effectively and thoroughly. And it earned us a deeper trust from our clients.

Planning for 2021

With almost a year's experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in hand, we're now conducting the research and analysis necessary to make business plans for 2021, and we've published that report for Agency Radar subscribers.

  • How will the pandemic affect your agency in 2021?
  • What impact will it have on your team, your clients, your community?
  • What can you do to prepare?

This Board Briefing on Pandemic in 2021 is a thorough and multifaceted assessment that looks ahead to the likely developments in the pandemic and the response to it next year. The report examines a wide range of factors that will affect the business climate, focusing particularly on the agency context, with analysis focussed on both the likelihood and impact in each dimension.

  • What is the current state of the pandemic and the response?
  • What medical progress has been made? What progress can be expected in 2021?
  • What do we know now about immunity to COVID-19? What can we expect from vaccines in the year ahead?
  • What health protection measures are best in responding to coronavirus?
  • What impact can we expect on the economy generally, and on the business climate more specifically?
  • What support is likely for business in 2021?

The report covers specific impacts on agency clients and agency staff.

The brief contains a number of recommendations throughout and summarises them in a detailed conclusion, together with discussion points for agency boards to consider.

The full report is available for subscribers, and we think you'll find it worth way more than the subscription price, just on its own.

These are turbulent times and the need to gather valuable intelligence and make more mindful, more strategic decisions to guide our agencies is stronger than ever.

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