Building a lockdown exit plan

COVID-19 Coronavirus

Written by Glenn Elliott

Last published at: May 30th, 2020

Revision History

Issue 1.0 Initial Publication 30 April 2020

Issue 1.1 Updated to include additional information on post infection immunity 4 May 2020


New infection rates in the UK are still high but there is increased talk of a lockdown exit plan. At some point soon, the government will start to relax or change lockdown measures. Now is the time to be making the lockdown exit plan for your business.

When lockdown measures are relaxed, some people who are currently safe at home will get sick. That is an unfortunate inevitability of attempting to get back to some form of normality and working economy.

This note suggests some ways you can plan to manage the risk in your own company and your people.

Our priorities in writing this note are the health and wellbeing of your people and the continued operation of your business.

Planning for a return to work

There is much that we don't know about returning to work and as this has never been done before, governments and scientists don't have all the answers either.

But we need to do some planning. There are four important facts to start with:

  1. When people stay at home and have minimal social contact they have a very low chance of catching the virus.
  2. Most of the few studies that have happened worldwide suggest that a very small percentage of the population, maybe as little as 3% have actually had the virus
  3. We still do not know if having had the virus gives you immunity and if so for how long. We hope it will give  immunity and that happens with some viruses, such as measles . But of the seven coronaviruses that infect humans, post-infection immunity for the six we understand has been found to be only temporary. On 23rd April, the WHO warned against relying on post-infection immunity stating there was no evidence to support this.
  4. When people start moving around and increase social contact their risk of catching the virus increases assuming the virus is still present in the population

No government has yet had experience of relaxing lockdown measures successfully.

No one has successfully relaxed lockdown measures for any significant duration yet. What is being tried has never been done before. So no one actually has certainty on what will happen.

  • It is not unreasonable to think that virus infections will increase when lockdown measures are relaxed. If they increase a lot, lockdown measures will be reinstated.
  • We don't know if we will end up with a period of lockdown measures turning on and off but it is a real possibility.
  • If that is the case, we also don't know how long the periods will be or what future lockdowns would look like

What hints do we have?

  • We do know that in Germany, which started relaxing lockdown measures last week, the R0 infection rate  increased from their low of 0.7 to 1.0 (a 42% increase) and then fell back to 0.75 showing how sensitive the situation is to changes in behaviour.
  • China has the longest experience and has been trying to loosen lockdown for weeks now. They have opened businesses then reversed those decisions weeks later showing the path to normal is not linear or direct.
  • India has also eased then reimposed its lockdown.
  • On 30 Apr, Denmark  reported an increase in their R0 figure from 0.6 to 0.9 in the two weeks since they started to lift their lockdown.

If the R0 infection rate stays below 1 meaning that on average each infected person infects less than one other person, the overall number of infected people should decline and the virus should die out. (Not use of the word should as measuring the R0 figure in an imperfect science)

Remember, all actions that governments are taking are experiments. No one actually knows what will really happen. Assume everything you see and hear being actioned is an experiment or pilot that could go wrong or be reversed.

So what should you plan for?

1. Consider how you will interpret government advice. Once permission is given, when will you choose to return your team to the office? 

Current government advice is that all people who can work from home should work from home. At some point in the future, that guidance will change or be relaxed. When this happens what will you do? Will you ask all staff to come to the office? Or will you be more cautious?

  • For example, if the government said office workers no longer had to work from home, you might decide that only some departments or workers should stop working from home.

    You could consider which roles or departments are struggling to work effectively from home and bring them back to the office earlier. Roles or departments who can home work well could stay home working for longer, adopting a "wait and see" approach.

    Additional you should consider people individually. Some people may be struggling to work from home even if other people doing the same type of work are doing it successfully.

    The experience of your people will vary widely. At one extreme some will have coped really well with the lockdown and working from home. At another end some may, for lots of reasons, be desperate to get back to the office. Others may be living in real fear of rejoining society because they’ve been ill themselves or they live with a person in a high risk group.

    So be sensitive to individual needs and situations as well as thinking about the business from a functional perspective.

    If your businesses was primarily office based before COVID-19 you may be keen to get everyone back together as quickly as permitted. But beware that this is the highest risk approach in terms of the health and wellbeing of your staff.

  • Think about business travel, meetings and events.

    Travel restrictions may be lifted or changed at a national level, but consider how you want your company to manage the risk. Will staff be able to travel and go to events freely as before? Or will there be a different risk-reward balance to demonstrate first?

    Your old policies on travel, events and meetings may no longer meet your needs

  • Consider what will happen if flights specifically are unattractive or expensive.

    If your business makes use of air travel consider what you will do if air travel is much more expensive or difficult for an extended period of time.We don't know what air travel will be like in the future. Some industry speculators think that in-flight social distancing could make airlines fly at 20% capacity.

2. Lockdown relaxation will inherently make life riskier. This could cause a prolonged absence of people. Start contingency planning for that now.

When all of your people are at home and having minimal social contact they are as safe as you can make them. When they start moving around and coming out of lockdown risk must increase. Therefore start contingency planning for senior absence.

Start with the CEO then the executive team, design now what your continuity plan is if each member of the exec team was out of action for eight to 12 weeks. 

  • A moderate COVID-19 infection, not requiring a hospital stay, often sees someone off work and quite ill for up to three weeks
  • People requiring hospital treatment are on average in hospital for eight days
  • People requiring ITU care in the hospital are, on average, in hospital for 16 days
  • On 28th April, the UK Health Secretary stated that people recovering from ITU care for COVID-19 may need two to three months off work.

For your CEO and each member of the exec team consider the following :

  1. Who will deputise for them in their absence?
  2. Will there be limitations on their remit?
  3. Is there anything they would like to tell or share with their deputy now that will prepare them for a potentially longer than normal cover period?
  4. Do they have access to systems, accounts or data that they might need to do the role, or how will they get that access if the incumbent is unable to handover effectively.

Involve your teams openly, document plans clearly and be sensitive - planning for your own or your colleagues' potential illness is unnerving and unpleasant.

Once the senior team is complete, consider repeating the exercise for your next level down, or alternatively, for key roles in critical specialist areas.

3. Consider whether incumbents and deputies should be kept apart more than normal.

If the deputy for your CEO is your COO, it would be normal for them to fly, travel and work together closely. Fortunately, mainstream travel is extremely safe so we don't need to worry about that normally.

But in an environment where a flight, train or car could be a place to catch COVID-19 then you might want to deliberately separate travel plans out to minimise the chance of them getting sick at the same time.

Consider this for your Exec team and all key roles.

4. Consider how you will handle staff who don't feel safe coming back to work, or who don't feel safe staying at home.

Whatever your decisions on when to bring people back to work, not everyone may agree or feel the same way. We all have different attitudes to risk and approaches for dealing with risk. We also all have different home environments.

This is a time for extra sensitivity to individual needs and situations.

5. Be in this for the long haul and keep your plan and policies under constant review.

We are going to be operating in a Coronoavirus-affected environment for some significant time. Until there is either a vaccine that can be administered widely or a highly effective treatment that reduces the severity of the disease then this environment will be your new normal.

Whatever plan you make today will be imperfect and flawed. Keep it under constant review, keep listening to feedback from your staff and customers and keep iterating and developing your plan.

In summary

The old saying "Hope for the best and plan for the worst" feels very apt now.

In a new way of working post COVID-19, we will have to think much more about risk and reward. Deciding if a business action or activity is "worth it" will become about much more than money.

Keep your optimism that we will get through this but prepare yourself that it will not be a comfortable or straight line back to normality.

Further Reading