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Coronavirus – Uncertainty Still Rules

It’s exactly six weeks since we first blogged about the spread of coronavirus – at that point we warned that the next few weeks were likely to be characterised by considerable uncertainty.  Much has happened since then, just in the last few days we have seen:

  • The formal declaration of a pandemic;
  • A lock-down in Italy;
  • Cancelling of flights from Europe to the US; and
  • Closure of schools in Ireland

However, we still know comparatively little about the threat that we are dealing with.

There is now reasonable agreement about some of the critical epidemiological details, such as:

  • The reproduction number, R0, lies between 2 and 3; and
  • The incubation period is around 5 days.

But still we are unable to answer critical questions like “How quickly will it spread?”, “Where will it hit next?”, “How bad will it get?” and “What can we do to limit spread of the disease?”  Absent clarity on these points it is perhaps not surprising that we see different governments reacting in completely different ways.  Interestingly, research published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in early February predicted the likelihood of an outbreak in Italy as lower than that in the USA, Canada, the UK or Germany: so why has it happened?

Whilst we may not (yet) understand the cause of the outbreak in Italy, it may still be a useful case study of the effects of a coronavirus outbreak in a country like the UK.  The graph below shows confirmed cases up to today and a simple logistic curve predicting the progress of the disease up to the end of the month.

The chilling observation is that we in the UK are now at the point, in terms of both confirmed cases and deaths, that Italy was at about two weeks ago; but it just seems impossible to predict with any accuracy whether we will now follow a similar trajectory or not.  All the same there must already be lessons being learned at government, industry and firm-level that we can usefully apply in this country: it is vital that we seize this opportunity in the limited time available.