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Lessons to be learned from a global pandemic: Planning and exercising

Intelligence Fusion’s Board Chair, and trusted advisor to the UK Ministry of Defense, Robert Hayes highlights the importance of planning and exercising as organisations of all sizes battle to survive amidst a global pandemic.

I’ve read many commentaries on the current COVID-19 outbreak which describe it as a “black swan” event which could not have been predicted. This is simply wrong. 

Worse, taking this view will mean that we fail to act on other, potentially equally impactive, issues that have been just as authoritatively forecasted as COVID-19, but with a similar degree of inaction.

In this post I want to focus on another health-related issue which has long been flagged as having the potential to significantly impact on the way we live and do business. I also want to highlight how planning and exercising have enabled some organisations to be well prepared and equipped to deal with COVID-19 and suggest that other organisations consider how they can prepare for the next crisis.

For some years I supported the UK Ministry of Defence in the production of the Global Strategic Trends (GST) report. The authors state that “GST does not attempt to predict the future, it cannot. Rather, it describes those phenomena that could have a significant impact on the future and combines these differing perspectives to produce a multifaceted picture of possible outcomes.” The current version, published in 2018 and looking out to 2050, is well worth a read and can be found here.

In relation to pandemics, GST has this to say;

 “…more people will be living in cities and travelling further and more frequently. As the number of animals being farmed rises, the risk of animal diseases mutating to infect people (as happened with bird flu and swine flu) is also likely to increase.” 

I think you’ll agree, this has proved to be both accurate and prescient.

It’s worth looking at other areas highlighted in GST and considering the potential impact on how we live and do business.

As an example, GST considers antimicrobial resistance, and the associated reduced effectiveness of antibiotics, to be an issue of equal weight to a pandemic. In 2016 it was estimated that 700,000 people died as a result of exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria, and without mitigating measures being put into place, by 2050 there could be over ten million fatalities annually. Despite this issue being flagged by many organisations including the World Health Organisation and United Nations, work on mitigation seems to lack urgency when considering against the potential impact.

The consequence of a lack of effective antibiotics would make any surgery extremely risky, increase the risk of fatality from common hospital acquired infections such as Clostridium Difficile, and fundamentally change the balance of risk on many of today’s common treatments.

This in turn is likely to affect the risk appetite of individuals and impact their behaviour towards avoiding infection. This could have as significant an impact on the way we live and do business as the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, can organisations actually do anything to prepare for such extreme events? The answer is a categoric “yes”.

I work with a number of organisations, both public and private sector, and have been able to observe their preparedness to the impact of COVID-19 first-hand.

Many organisations have been found seriously wanting, not having effectively considered events such as a pandemic, that could cause staff to be isolated from the workplace, with high absence rates, and subsequently found their infrastructure and processes seriously deficient for the new reality. Not only does this have a real impact on the ability to fulfil their duty of care towards staff, but also means making, tracking, and acting effectively on decisions is really challenging.

However, I have a beacon of good practice.

One organisation ran a desktop exercise in December 2019, with the issue tested being a pandemic outbreak (the person who chose the subject deserves a medal!). As part of the exercising, specific issues tested were contingency plans for high staff absence, processes for remote working, communications and technology, staff welfare, and an emergency command structure.

Exercises are designed to identify areas where attention is needed, and this was no different, however lessons were learned, and many processes and policies were changed in response.

When COVID-19 hit, the organisation was able to quickly instigate some of the revised processes put in place post exercise (such as identifying staff who had returned from high risk areas), and with the exercise itself still front of mind, stand up an extremely effective response plan. Key elements of the response plan are:

  • Crisis specific strategic aims and objectives
  • Communications plan – internal and external
  • Business continuity plans
  • Emergency command and decision management structure
  • Decision and action logging and audit
  • Service protection plan

Whilst it’d be premature to say that everything went according to plan (some assumptions and dependencies did not work as planned), it strongly proves the point that organisations who plan and exercise against different threats perform better in live situations.

I have no idea what the next crisis will look like, but I have confidence that it will already have been flagged and predicted in GST or one of the similar documents produced around the world.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that if your organisation regularly plans and exercises for different crisis situations, it will respond much more effectively when the real event happens.

And this could make the difference between survival or failure.


Whilst many countries are believed to be beyond the peak of the pandemic, the battle is not yet over. The long-term security implications of COVID-19 continue to evolve as nations begin to re-open and the significant impact on the economy is realised.

An intelligence-led solution is key when it comes to adjusting your operations in line with the ‘new normal’ and the novel threats and security risks it begins to present. It’ll also be vital in assisting you with your planning and preparation for the next global crisis. To understand how threat intelligence can help your business better navigate the consequences of COVID-19, speak to the team for your free tailored demonstration.



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