Perspectives with Bruce Hugman from the World Health Organisation’s Uppsala Monitoring Centre (UMC) – an independent centre for patient safety and scientific research

In a pattern close to that of major public health programmes, the infrastructure sector delivers major projects supported by government policy with the aim of addressing societal issues, protecting a population’s wellbeing and achieving progress against global challenges while balancing impacts, all within a political context. To achieve these aims, regulatory, planning, legal, safety and communications risks need to be addressed before this becomes a reality.

©Bruce Hugman         

I am not writing as a representative of WHO or Uppsala Monitoring Centre UMC), but have worked for both for the past 25 years as a communications expert and teacher. WHO plays a major, active role in strategy, guidance and field-work in all aspects of global health; UMC focuses exclusively on patient safety and, among other things, collects data on the adverse reactions patients have to their treatments. The UMC database contains over 20 million reports of adverse reactions gathered worldwide over 40 years since the WHO Programme began. Those represent only a tiny percentage of all adverse reactions experienced by patients.

My job has been to help put communications on the medical and scientific map and to promote the case that failures in communications often underlie problems and failures of all kinds. Our concerns range from the encounter between patient and doctor, all the way through to drug development, national regulation and global public health policy. Effective communications promote health and save lives, everywhere.

This article mentions empathy, among much else. Lest you think this is some woolly, armchair concept, I want to make the case for it now. Empathy is the ability to think and feel like someone else, to see the world from their perspective, for however brief a period. It is not ‘putting yourself in some else’s shoes’, it is experiencing life as someone else would experience it in their shoes. It is not sympathy or concern or compassion; it is a strenuous intellectual and imaginative effort to move utterly outside one’s own reality and into the reality of another. It is achieved by research, engagement, by profound listening and patience. If there were more empathy of this quality in the world, there would be a great deal less strife and alienation, in families and institutions, in politics and economics, and in infrastructure and healthcare.

So, with that background, let’s begin; I hope you will enjoy this short cross-sectoral journey.

From medieval cathedrals to Victorian railways, from the Adirondacks Northway to the 30-metre telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, from dams to bridges, from windfarms to HS2, even foreign embassies in Tower Hamlets and golf courses in Aberdeenshire, great infrastructure and engineering projects have always provoked a measure of opposition, sometimes extreme.

From the first modern vaccination, of an 8 year-old boy with live cowpox by Edward Jenner in 1796, until the present day, vaccination has also provoked opposition, sometimes extreme. Hostility to projects is one of several influential, common features of infrastructure and health that I hope you will find illuminating to explore with me.

This text appeared in the synopsis for the webinar:

‘The infrastructure sector delivers major projects supported by government policy with the aim of addressing societal issues, protecting a population’s wellbeing and achieving progress against global challenges while balancing impacts, all within a political context. To achieve these aims, regulatory, planning, legal, safety and communications risks need to be addressed before this becomes a reality.’

These very words describe equally accurately the enterprise of public health, where ‘projects’ are focused on delivering healthcare programmes or services of one kind or another within a comparably complex context of demands and risks.

Effective risk management and programme integrity in vaccination are matters of life and death: over the centuries, hundreds of millions of people died from smallpox, even through the 20th century until it was declared eradicated through vaccination in 1980; overall, the life-saving capacity of vaccination is stunning: WHO reports that immunization currently prevents 2-3 million deaths every year from diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza and measles, as well as millions of hospitalisations.

When things go wrong in vaccination programmes, when risks are not anticipated or well managed, people become infected or die from direct or indirect effects:

  • scores of health workers distributing polio vaccine have been killed on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border
  • a boycott of polio vaccination in northern Nigeria led to re-emergece of the disease
  • problems with the dengue vaccination programme in the Philippines led to a loss of faith in vaccination in general
  • in Europe and the US loss of confidence in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine led to outbreaks of measles and the death of children
  • ebola projects were recently being stymied in DRC because of rumours of foreign plots and threats to health
  • substantial numbers of people in the West indicate refusal or likely reluctance in relation to a Covid-19 vaccine.

What can we learn about risk management from these compelling and troubling facts?

The complexity of public perception:

There are a few fundamental truths about public perception and opinion about infrastructure projects, vaccination or any issue in society that we all need to keep in mind:

  • Heterogeneity within society and within individuals
  • Everyone assesses risk differently and inconsistently
  • Opinions and perceptions are driven less by facts and reason than by emotion and political, religious and other affiliations (for example, denial of climate change and the politicization of mask-wearing in the US)
  • Patterns of opinion and perception tend to cluster together, especially under the influence of social media; such clusters are powerful determinants of loyalties and opinion
  • Confirmation bias, that is the tendency of every one of us to rally round those who share and confirm our opinions and to dismiss or re-interpret opinions or facts that challenge our views (we all do it, however clever we think we are)
  • Fundamentalists, especially at the hostile end of the spectrum, are usually small in number but effective in making themselves heard.

Perception and opinion are strongly influenced by variables that we must factor into our planning and communications by accurately identifying and targeting them:

  • The degree of trust in the entity or company making the proposition in health or infrastructure
  • The degree of audience engagement with or alienation from the current proposition and/or previous comparable historical events
  • The degree of felt inclusion or exclusion within society as a whole (for example, President Trump’s base embraces many who have felt excluded from dominant US society; many people in parts of the UK feel left behind from the prosperity of the nation; BAME citizens are often severely disadvantaged in their communities)
  • Multiple socio-economic, demographic, ethnic, gender and other issues and poverty
  • The immediacy of the risk or threat, its novelty and dreadfulness
  • Risks related to children
  • Conservatism, that is the urge to resist change, especially in the midst of uncertainty
  • The seeding of doubt (this is what the tobacco companies did for decades after the lung cancer facts were established beyond question; what China is trying to do about the source of Covid-19; and a major tactic of climate change deniers)
  • Vivid, emotionally-charged stories (real or imaginary medical injuries or deaths; infrastructure disasters of one sort or another)
  • Group allegiance; political, religious, identity and other affiliations (especially through social media)
  • Scientific, technical and statistical illiteracy
  • The views of influencers and celebrities for good and ill
  • Media reporting of variable integrity and quality

There is a small, but highly vocal group of fundamentalist anti-vaccination campaigners across the world who embrace a variety of beliefs: religion, hostility to science and scientific medicine, belief in natural remedies, distrust of governments and the pharmaceutical industry, doubts about efficacy and safety. Between them and vaccine supporters are large numbers of people who maintain a degree of agnosticism, sometimes known as ‘vaccine hesitancy’, who may be amenable to persuasion one way or the other, especially by those who pay them serious attention. We should pay a great deal of attention to this large intermediate, undecided group and never assume that the loudest voices represent the majority.

Although vaccination rates in the UK are generally quite good, maybe a third of the British population say they are either uncertain or very unlikely to agree to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and this includes some health professionals. Herd immunity is at risk if the threshold of (probably) 70-80% coverage is not reached.

If we look at some of these issues in relation to preparations for rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine (or any other project in public health or infrastructure), there are some very clear pointers to action in risk management measures:

  • Trust and engagement are essential: built over time through meaningful engagement with audiences, transparency, reputation and a track record of positive achievement
    • In terms of individual decisions, for example, people are particularly amenable to the advice of their own doctors or local leaders whom they know and trust; beyond that, other channels are much less predictable, though informal ones tend to be more influential than official ones
  • Recognition that trust cannot be established simply by centralized, top-down communications, though inspired leadership can have beneficial effects
  • Building trust on the basis of respectful attention to feelings and opinion, by listening, by empathy and authentic, targeted, calibrated responses in people’s preferred language; listening to everyone, not just the loudest voices
  • Engaging trusted intermediaries, such as celebrities, religious and community leaders in messaging (the NHS is planning such a campaign for Covid-19; Birmingham is engaging ‘Covid Champions’ to promote the case; ex-presidents in the US are volunteering to be televised when they are vaccinated)
  • Understanding that trust cannot be established overnight by strangers.

With vaccination, the perceived risk may not be the distant risk of sickness or death from an infectious disease (as a species, we are very poor at envisaging distant risks), but from the immediate insertion of needles into infants. Babies and adults are, after all, healthy when they get vaccinated. Covid-19 aside, in the West, we live in an era when the ravages of infectious diseases have not been seen at first hand by most people. As a result, exaggerated immediate risks or very rare adverse effects, or other fears, become more potent influencers than the diseases themselves. Once this conviction is established, it retains its potency even in the face of a pandemic and the daily evidence of sickness and death. Fake news promotes disinformation about all aspects of reality, including the existence of the virus itself.

There has been a decline in trust in politicians and experts; there is widespread cynicism about corporate standards and the motive for profit; and there are common beliefs about corruption and cronyism in national affairs There are well attested examples of both. Big, remote, powerful entities, like governments, public health systems and corporations can provoke suspicion or hostility just because they are big, remote and powerful – and because they sometimes do terrible things. This perception and its effects are risks that must be managed.

People have long memories for problems and failures: in infrastructure projects, disruption and delays, cost-overruns, aesthetic challenges, fires, collapses, and so on, rare though they are. The revelations of the Grenfell enquiry are currently doing inestimable damage to the reputation of the building industry. Similarly damaging in health are medicines safety and other scandals (like thalidomide, Vioxx, Valproate, vaginal mesh, benzodiazapenes, opioid painkillers, the 1976 US flu vaccine debacle), as well as abuse and incompetence in hospitals and care homes; rare though these are too, they stick in the public’s mind and shape opinion.

If you add the chaotic mismanagement of the pandemic and the appalling communications in the UK, US and other places; what some see as the risks of the unholy and dangerous rush to find and approve a novel vaccine for a new disease; questions about the competence of the government and the health service to operate track and trace and to cope with the huge logistical complexity of mass vaccination, it is not surprising that many people are anxious.  I’m anxious. The coming together of multiple past memories and present doubts is a powerful recipe for loss of public confidence. It needs research, acknowledgement and active and highly skilled management.

Political and official blindness and deafness

Responses to the anti-vax movement have often been naïve and counterproductive. A belief that anti-vaxxers are ignorant and stupid has influenced the tone of communications (‘total nonsense’ said the PM dismissively on 11 November), in spite of the fact that many leading lights are intelligent and well educated, some of them qualified doctors and scientists. They are wrong, but they are not stupid. Cascading safety data and generalized assertions of benefit entirely miss the target.

Much the same issues apply to opponents of infrastructure projects: some may be malicious or ideological, but the majority are likely to be honest, conscientious citizens acting on the best information they have and on what they regard as the best interests of themselves and the community. Their arguments and feelings have to be taken as seriously as their actions and negotiated and managed, face-to-face.  We need to know how far any hostile group is representative of their communities.

The vivid video of a distressed mother who claims her child’s autism or neurological damage or death was caused by the vaccination she trustingly agreed to cannot be rebutted by any amount of data, nor by the essential (but counterintuitive) truth that temporal association does not equal causation.

The truth is that short term, mild side effects of vaccination (inflammation of injection site, slight fever or headache, for example) are common, while serious reactions (usually allergic) are vanishingly rare (one or two per million doses). (On the first day of the Covid vaccine roll-out there were two reported adverse reactions, probably allergic, from which the individuals recovered quickly. The regulator has since offered guidance that anyone with a history of allergic reactions to food, medicines or other substances should not be vaccinated.) It is the case that rare side effects do not usually become known until very large numbers of people (hundreds of thousands) have been vaccinated or have taken a new drug over a long period of time (months or years), so there is always some measure of uncertainty, something we manage very badly as a society, always seeking a black or white answer. Serious side effects may be very rare, but anxious parents don’t necessarily believe that and they worry that it will be their baby that’s the one who suffers.

Communications

There is a considerable risk of disconnect between centralised, top-down planning and communications and the reality on the ground. Politicians, officials and corporate executives, engineers and scientists, can be blind to the complex reality of their audiences and to ways of developing the kinds of communications that might reach and engage them. Good communications are as complex as bridge-building, and a single person or department rarely has the ability to do both well.

There is always a risk of failure if there is not a serious, on-the-ground commitment to early research and listening. One of the tragedies of the current crisis is that both the US and the UK had very sophisticated pandemic preparedness plans and teams that were defunded or abandoned as recently as 2019. It is too easy to neglect investment in planning for risks that seem remote.

Although an infrastructure project may go ahead in the face of opposition, no company wants to carry a negative reputational legacy once it is completed. Avoiding or mitigating that risk, and building reputational strength for future projects, may depend crucially on the company’s insight and understanding of the objections and on the quality of the process of face-to-face engagement and communication through every stage. One complexity, of course, is that objections to a project may be ideological or political that the company cannot hope to resolve. However, the degree of empathy, the extent of willingness to listen, to negotiate, to make concessions, to manage problems, and to admit mistakes, will have a huge impact on public perception of any project and on future projects too (this is also true in healthcare). Nevertheless, we have to accept that there will be some, usually a small minority of objectors, sometimes a larger number, who will never be won over to supporting some infrastructure projects or to consenting to vaccination.

Societies have become more individualized, more fragmented, more tribalized and partisan in recent years. There are goodness and generosity, but preoccupation with self is rampant. Alienation and inequality have increased; deference to experts and authority figures have declined; social media and the internet have fundamentally changed the way people define themselves, cultivate their opinions and assess facts and information; fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation have erupted everywhere.  We need to be aware of these destabilizing trends and their implications for us; we have no choice but to be energetically engaged hour by hour in monitoring and participating in multiple channels, especially social media. This requires clever, busy, agile staff.

The argument for vaccination relies on two equally important objectives: protection of the self or children from infection and disease; and the phenomenon known as ‘herd immunity’, the protection of society at large from the spread of infection and the sickness and death of others. Sadly, the possibility of exposing other people to potentially fatal infection does not seem a sufficient motivator to get vaccinated for a percentage of the population.

No medicine or medical procedure is risk free; every pill you take has the potential to harm you (every year millions of patients worldwide are harmed by their medicines) and, rarely, to kill you (this is true even of penicillin, for example). The ethical purpose of shared decision making with patients is that they understand the benefits of potential treatments and their risks. Accepting any treatment at all means accepting some measure of risk; the calculation will be different for every individual.

A similar computation of benefit and risk happens in the public’s assessment of infrastructure projects and there will be a similar range of varying opinion about the extent of benefit and the extent of risks and losses. Any doctor or drug manufacturer who says ‘This drug is safe’ is, at best, making a misleading and unjustifiable assertion, at worst lying. Any contractor who says ‘This project is without negative impact’ is in much the same ethically dubious category.  Both players risk, in due course, exposure as irresponsible and untrustworthy and being added to a blacklist for the future. We need to remember also that almost all projects have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Covid, for example, has led to a huge backlog in cancer treatment in the West, and, in developing countries, to diversion of scarce resources, away, for example, from treatment of HIV/AIDS; the mental health of young people has been deeply damaged; in the bizarre category of unexpected harm, 398 people in the UK have died after ingestion of hand-sanitiser since January this year. Planning has to be radically imaginative to anticipate and take account of these kinds of consequential risks.

In relation to an infrastructure project, people may need to be encouraged to make the difficult benefit-risk assessment that the benefits to the common good outweigh the risks or losses to me, the individual citizen, exactly as we might hope to persuade a reluctant parent to vaccinate their child. Big ticket projects may draw attention to local deficiencies and intensify this conflict.

We must assume that a mother whose child dies of measles after she has refused to have them vaccinated, would feel substantial measures of grief and regret. That may be one of the stories we should exploit in promoting vaccination.

I mention this because I think that grief may be a powerful emotion that exercises some infrastructure project opponents: the loss of woodland or a much loved tree; the loss of parts of a familiar landscape; displacement from home; the disruption or destruction of daily routines; the impact on wildlife; all some kind of version of death. These are all unique, profound sensations which are rather more amenable to therapy than the blandishments of public relations. If I am right in this speculation, then it has implications for the way we deal with opposition in the early stages, throughout the project and in the aftermath of completion. This is just one more of the influential and complex existential risks that has to be recognized and managed.

Conclusion

My concluding key points to this rich and fascinating set of problems, relevant for infrastructure and public health, are:

  • Communications in advance of major projects or programmes, and throughout, require sensitive and intense on-the-ground, face-to-face research about the multiple variables of public attitudes, loyalties, values and beliefs (standard consultation and online or postal surveys fall far short)
  • The profound influence of memory, contemporary culture and social media on public opinion must be recognized and managed, principally by engagement that is rapid, empathetic, respectful and finely calibrated; ‘rapid’ means next to instantaneous
  • Public assessments of benefit, risk and loss must be factored into the arguments for any proposition, including admission that not all benefits may be realized or universal, not all benefits may be perceived as outweighing the losses, and not all losses can be ameliorated
  • In our communications we must seek to be trusted, through transparency, empathy, consistency, honesty, accuracy, genuineness, speed; even if in the end we are unable to reconcile all parties, we do not want to be remembered as heavy-handed, distant, neglectful, arrogant, for such an assessment would deeply damage our future prospects and those of the industry or of public health as a whole.

These principles may result in:

  • Reduction of hostility and lessening of obstacles
  • Facilitation of engagement and negotiation
  • Persuasion and conversion of some opponents and alignment of the undecided
  • A reduction in lasting antagonism, bitterness and resentment
  • The enhancement of reputation
  • More people looking favourably on projects and more people getting vaccinated

Before I finish, let me just reflect briefly on the extraordinary event of this week: the first vaccination of a UK citizen against Covid-19. This rapid, scientific triumph is built on years of slow, anonymous, painstaking foundational research. The story of coronavirus and the vaccine have now been told to us by a multitude of experts and scientists. Even with some distracting interventions by politicians, there has been a continuous narrative in which we have been able to locate ourselves and through which we have been able to make judgements and envisage the future.

There has rarely been much of a narrative for infrastructure’s great projects, or for its little ones. We never hear about the years of thinking, designing, planning, and imaginative risk-taking that the geniuses of the industry routinely deploy; nor do we hear an authentic voice of the industry as a whole or of the contractor on our doorstep. The British don’t respond well to having rules or changes imposed on them or having what they see as their rights damaged or taken away. Mandatory vaccination would provoke opposition even among some vaccine supporters and would cascade fuel on the fire of opponents’ protests. Infrastructure and public health, both having such massive impact of the lives of the nation, must tell a good story which touches people’s hearts and minds and makes them glad to travel with them.

About Bruce Hugman

Bruce Hugman

 

Bruce has written extensively on healthcare communication, particularly in patient safety, risk communication and crisis management; he has published a dozen or so books (law, sociology, criminal justice, literary criticism, biography) and multiple articles in professional journals and chapters in edited collections. He teaches and lectures in many parts of the world. He has taught English and social studies in schools and universities; worked in criminal justice as a probation officer; held senior communications posts in the public transport sector; and ran his own communications company in the UK for ten years. He lived in Chiang Rai, Thailand for eighteen years, now settled in Oxford.

 

He has recently spoken and presented on the contemporary threats to science and evidence and on the corrosive threats of fake news. His principal books in the field of healthcare are Expecting the Worst (a crisis management manual for healthcare) and Healthcare Communication, a textbook for all sectors of the field.

 

In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure for their take on the issues and challenges facing the industry. 

This month, Copper Consultancy’s Senior Account Manager Fiona Woolston talks to Mott MacDonald’s Executive Director for External Engagement, Professor Denise Bower OBE. Denise joined the Mott MacDonald Executive Board as Group External Engagement Director in January 2020. She is responsible for client and partner relationships, coordination of thought leadership and driving improvements in the delivery of major projects. Denise has had an impressive career in the infrastructure industry. She is well known through her role as the executive director of the Major Projects Association and as a Professor in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds. She was a long-standing member of the Infrastructure Client Group and has worked closely with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to improve major project initiation and delivery.

We asked Denise about global learning, corporate purpose and the value of authenticity in business.

 

As a global company, did Mott MacDonald’s worldwide ethos support operations in the UK, as Covid-19 pushed the implementation of new ways of working?

Mott MacDonald’s international planning was certainly helped by the fact that different parts of the business had already experienced lockdown. Our offices across Asia were very supportive in sharing their experiences of reopening, remote working and the practical support required. Unlike other crises, the fact that this was a truly global event also meant we were all learning together, which has really helped the business following the uncertainty the UK faced back in March.

 

What innovations has Motts implemented in the UK because of this learning?

Thankfully, we already had a pandemic response plan that made us well-equipped to embrace change and innovation, supported by our digital infrastructure. We are planning to retain online meetings by default to cut carbon emissions and increase participation and inclusivity, something that proved particularly successful for our recent AGM. We’ve also been able to streamline company objectives and open up training and development across all our international geographies – that’s really helped us further embrace the ethos of diversity and inclusion that we take pride in as an employee-owned company.

 

What do you believe are the long-term impacts of these changes to Mott MacDonald’s operations in the UK and abroad?

Cutting carbon, like all our initiatives, fundamentally comes back to how we are defining our purpose as a company, specifically promoting and enacting positive social outcomes. And this extends wider than just our business – the legacy of recovery should be in shifting conversations – from projects and programmes being ‘shovel ready’ to ‘shovel worthy’; talking about improving education rather than building schools; discussing health rather than hospitals; and moving from the projects we work on to the way we benefit communities.

 

Some companies in the infrastructure and development sector do not operate globally. To help the sector thrive in the UK post-Covid, how can we share best practice from around the world?

I can’t help but reflect on my experience at the Major Projects Association (MPA) and the legacy work we did. Industry bodies such as the MPA are helping to lead on the transfer of organisational learning and Mott MacDonald is very supportive of this. The MPA has already published a paper that we have responded to. Online forums are also a great way to share expertise. Our teams regularly exchange perspectives on globally significant issues such as pandemic resilience and decarbonisation. For me, it’s all about bringing people together to share ideas in an active way.

 

Has the pandemic made Mott MacDonald reflect on what they stand for, and how they affect both their employees and the public?

The pandemic has made us reflect on the importance of our core values rather than change them. By considering social outcomes in everything we do, we are better equipped to help address the health, economic and societal rifts that Covid-19 and other pressures have exposed. Our position papers on Mott MacDonald’s advocacy of net zero and positive social outcomes contain practical steps we are taking to enable progress and what we want to be held accountable for by both our clients and the general public as our society recovers.

 

How can companies with similar ambitions to Mott MacDonald prove that they are truly authentic and reflective of their actions in the real world?

They need to ensure that the prominence of the journey they are on matches the scale of their ambitions. For example, Mott MacDonald has been investing in social inclusion specialists and developing relevant skills in our staff for the last three to four years. We created a new global social practice with five hundred members in more than 35 countries. We have developed a social outcomes framework to embed inclusion into our project planning and delivery processes so that it is not an add-on or optional service, and through our social transformation model we support colleagues to identify actions that can be taken at each stage of a project to maximise the benefits we deliver for people.

As a company, Mott MacDonald is committed to supporting the delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and we take pride in our efforts to support our clients in delivering the positive social outcomes they’re passionate about like equality, diversity, accessibility, participation, social care, women’s empowerment and girls’ education.

Actionable deadlines are also important. For example, Motts has committed to incorporating questions about the delivery of social outcomes into the interviewing process by 2022.

 

 Is it challenging to prove that you are authentic when you are perceived as ‘corporate’, and if so, how can this specific challenge be overcome?

There is certainly a balancing act between control and self-organisation. The pandemic has highlighted key challenges that we need to educate ourselves on, particularly as we still know that diversity is a challenge across the infrastructure and development sectors. The focus needs to be on filling gaps in our understanding through active and inclusive engagement with all our staff, and providing them with opportunities to advocate for issues close to their hearts. We have a CSR strategy but leave it to local offices’ discretion where they want to volunteer. What’s important is that, whilst trusting our local offices to make informed decisions on how they best give back to their community, we support them wherever we can.

 

 Finally, Mott MacDonald is an employee-owned company. What effect has the pandemic had on this arrangement and vice versa, and what lessons does it have for the wider infrastructure and development sector?

The benefits of an employee-owned company are that everyone feels as if they have a long-term investment in the future success of the business, both professionally and financially. It also helps unify the company around things like our core principle of delivering positive social outcomes or our strategy for net zero, as well as allowing us to adapt faster to changes brought on by events like Covid-19.

Ultimately, our standout lesson from Covid-19 as an employee-owned business is the importance of having the longer-term outcome as a reference point – for us that is improving society. This is true for the industry as well, when you need to make decisions at speed, understanding the value you need to deliver for the user is critical.

 

 

In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure for their take on the issues and challenges facing the industry.  

This month we talk to Logistics UK’s Multimodal Policy Manager, Zoe McLernon. Zoe has an extensive political background having been a senior caseworker in the House of Commons for several years before entering the political arena as a councillor representing Bicester South at Bicester Town Council. Zoe joined Logistics UK in 2019 and has been vocal in urging the government to release more information on its Freeport vision.

We asked Zoe about the challenges facing the logistics industry, from COVID-19 to Brexit.

How has Logistics UK responded to the challenges posed by the ongoing global pandemic?

As the business group representing the logistics sector, the team at Logistics UK has been focusing its efforts on supporting our members through the global pandemic. We have been engaging with government ministers across departments and at all levels to represent our members and ensure vital operations can continue; safeguarding the continuity of supply chains is key. Using a strong evidence base – obtained from our own weekly surveys – we have been focusing our attention on issues such as financial support for the sector, testing and regulatory difficulties, and ensuring workforces are protected while continuing to do their jobs. Each mode of transport and industry served by logistics has been affected differently and, with our unique position as the business group representing all facets of the sector, we are able to stand up for all parts of it.

What do you believe will be key to the UK’s recovery in the post-lockdown age?

As an enabler of economic and social activity, logistics has been critical to maintaining our everyday lives during the crisis and will be vital to economic recovery, and eventual long-term growth. For businesses to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic effectively, we want to see government offer continued financial support, via schemes such as Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), and to be flexible in its approach so businesses are able to access the funding they need.

Our members would also like to see the government increase its investment into transport infrastructure; in recent years, the UK’s quality of roads, efficiency of air transport, train and seaport services have decreased noticeably. Effective transport infrastructure is vital to economic and societal functioning, in addition to the international competitiveness of the UK.

What changes will we see in a post-coronavirus world?

While it is challenging to predict the shape of the post-coronavirus world, we expect to see consumer uneasiness around international travel continue in the short to medium term. This will present an issue for air freight as 60% of UK’s air cargo imports and exports are transported in the bellyhold of passenger planes.

Where (road, rail, air, sea) would Logistics UK like infrastructure investment to be prioritised and why?

Providing a greener alternative to other modes of transport, rail freight is a popular choice for many logistics businesses, contributing £870 million to the UK economy. To transition rail to a zero-emission transport mode – while improving infrastructure for rail freight operators – we would like to see a full electrification of the rail network. Alongside this, there are several smaller but important enhancement schemes we need to see come to fruition to improve rail connectivity to ports and roads; this is vital for intermodal supply chains.

Moving onto air travel, overcoming capacity constraints will be key to the growth of air cargo. At Logistics UK, we support the expansion of Heathrow Airport, and the benefits it will bring regional airports across the UK. In addition, we must be mindful of the positive impact air freight has had during the pandemic and consider how we approach night flying and slot flexibility going forward.  Regional airports also need more infrastructure, such as improved road and rail connectivity, to enable operations to grow and we will work with government to deliver a comprehensive, nationwide approach to tackling these limitations.

In the road transport sector, our members want to see improved welfare facilities for drivers, access to secure parking, increased road connections – particularly to ports and airports – in addition to the further development of infrastructure to support the use of Electric Vehicles.

The UK ports industry contributes more £9 billion in GVA (gross value added) to the economy, supporting more than 100,000 jobs for the maritime industry. We need to see a scaling up of the UK’s infrastructure ambitions, including a Green Maritime Fund for sustainable development.

Across all transport modes, inclusive and flexible freeports could lead the way to more opportunities, including fast-tracked planning processes and vital infrastructure to support trade.

Has the current crisis pushed environmental concerns down the industry’s priority list?

While the current crisis has meant our members have needed to focus their attention on other aspects of their work, decarbonisation remains a priority. Businesses within the logistics sector continue to work hard to reduce their environmental impact and make supply chains as green as possible.

How is the logistics industry readying to meet the UK’s net-zero pledge by 2050?

From transitioning to alternatively fuelled vehicles to adopting a more intermodal approach, there are endless ways businesses are readying themselves for a zero-emission future. At Logistics UK, we have been helping businesses reduce the emissions from their operations via the Logistics Emission Reduction Scheme (LERS), a voluntary initiative designed to record and reduce emissions from road freight operations. When compared to the rest of the industry as a whole, member average emissions are close to 13 per cent lower per vehicle. For more information, please visit lers.org.uk

How is Logistics UK preparing for the UK’s Brexit deadline and what do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the logistics sector throughout the Brexit negotiations?

At Logistics UK, we want to make sure every one of our members is ready for the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. To do so, we are in regular contact with government departments and ministers to ensure the information needed for a smooth transition is accessible and passed on to the industry. We are holding regular Brexit webinars, alongside our Brexit ‘enews’ supplements and engaging closely with our Customs and Trade Council members to ensure goods continue to enter and leave the UK from January 2021. We were successful in our request of government for an ‘implementation period’ beyond the current transition period, and hope that this will give the sector more time to prepare and bed into the post-Brexit trading environment.

Staffing and resources will be a fundamental challenge for the sector; having the funding and capacity to address the new operating models will be key to success.

Are there reasons for the logistics sector to be optimistic about the future?

Of course. The logistics sector has helped to keep the country moving during the pandemic and will continue to be vital in a post- EU Exit world. There are plenty of opportunities for the sector to grow and lead the way in many areas, including trade and decarbonisation. Highlighting the importance of logistics during a global crisis and the hard work of key workers during this time means we can embrace opportunities in recovery to support, shape and strengthen the logistics industry.

 

In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure for their take on the issues and challenges facing the industry.   

This month we talk to London City Airport’s CEO, Robert Sinclair.  Since moving from his native New Zealand, where he was Chief Financial Officer at Auckland Airport, Robert has established himself as one of the UK aviation sector’s most respected leaders.  He took the helm at London City in 2017 having steered Bristol Airport to eight consecutive years of growth.  A qualified lawyer and chartered accountant, Robert is a board member of the Airport Operators Association and Airports Council International Europe. 

We asked Robert about the challenges facing aviation, from COVID-19 to climate change. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your sector and how is it recovering? 

Clearly the Coronavirus pandemic and its fallout have severely affected the aviation and travel industries. London City Airport is no exceptionThe decision to temporarily suspended flights from the airport was difficult but done for the right reasons – to protect staff, our passengers, and our community. 

While this has unquestionably had a significant cost – and the crisis will continue to do so for months to come – the important steps we took to protect as many jobs as possible and to use the time productively, preparing the airport for ‘Covid Secure’ operations as soon as it was appropriate to restart, mean that we are well placed to weather the storm. 

While silver linings have been thin on the ground during this period, we have been able to make progress with our development programme, including new aircraft stands and a parallel taxiway which will enable us to cater for 45 movements per hour, and potentially more than that as demand returns.  

The outlook is definitely mixed from a demand point of view, and certainly was not helped by the quarantine announcement. However, thankfully, the government have listened to our calls and now seem to be making decisions which will not only benefit the industry but the entire UK economy.  

We have worked very closely with our airlines, in particular BA CityFlyer, to get them back flying from the airport and I’m pleased to say from 10th July onwards they will begin flying to Ibiza, Florence, Málaga, Palma, the Isle of Man, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin – re-establishing important Anglo-Irish domestic connections, as well as offering a chance for a well-deserved summer holiday. We will also see KLM resume flights between Amsterdam and London, restoring our most popular route. And from Monday 6th July, two new routes to Teesside in the north east and Dundee in Scotland will begin with Eastern Airways and Loganair respectively – further boosting regional connectivity 

We have also placed special emphasis operationally, and in our communications, on giving passengers the confidence to fly from the airport. Measures like temperature checking and enhanced cleaning regimes using long-lasting anti-microbial treatments go beyond government guidance and demonstratethat we are doing all we can to keep passengers and staff safe.  

But we also believe that, while much has changed, speed through the airport is as important now to passengers as it was before. We will continue to offer the fastest airport experience of any London airport, which will help us stand out.  

 

Do you see any long-term impacts on travel as a result of changes in working patterns and consumer behaviour during lockdown? 

While an initial caution is to be expected, I am very confident that people will still want to travel and fly for both leisure and business. 

Our customers have told us as much. A recent survey of over 4,700 City flyers found that 79% are either very likely or quite likely to travel when they are told it is safe to do so by the Government and airports or airlines. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how tempting a holiday is after months in lockdown, 42% plan to travel for leisure within the next three months. And we’ve seen a high level of bookings in the first few days on popular Mediterranean routes. 

Interestingly, 41% anticipate they will take a flight for business within the next three months – contradicting claims that business travel is overSpeaking to people from all sorts of industries, it’s clear they still want to travel for business and many plan to do so as soon as they can – you can’t beat meeting colleagues and clients in person, being on-site or seeing something for yourself. For these reasons deals and transactions will still be done in personAlthough there will be a reduction in the short term, as companies maintain restrictions and wait to see how the situation develops, business travel isn’t going away. 

As the capital’s most central airport, we play an important role in connecting people and businesses to opportunity. Just as important as enabling someone to fly to Frankfurt, Zurich or Edinburgh to do business, we also enable people to come to London for business and leisure. It is these people who are critical for our hard-hit businesses in the hospitality, retail, entertainment and culture sectors. I am confident London City Airport will continue to be a driving force in the UK and wider economy. 

 

London City Airport’s USP has always been its speed and convenience for passengers, particularly those travelling on business.  How will social distancing considerations impact this USP? 

It has never been more important to get through an airport quickly, with little dwell time and safe areas in which to wait. 85% of our customers said they would be more likely to use an airport if they can get to their gate in 20 minutes or lessThe good news for them is that we have designed the measures, put in place to keep everyone safe, to maintain as much as possible the speed and ease when travelling through London City Airport that passengers value so highly. You will still be able to get through the airport to your plane within 20 minutes. 

 

Looking beyond COVID-19, what other challenges are facing airports? 

The need to be more sustainable has not changed, and the public demand for cleaner, greener operations will not go away. Airports have an established track record of reducing carbon emissions, being energy efficient and embracing innovation. In December last year London City was accredited as carbon neutral by the Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme.  

The challenge for industry to face is around substantially reducing carbon emissions from aircraft. Huge steps have been made by airlines and manufacturers in the last decade, which they should be applauded for. The A220 which operates from LCY produces about 20% less emissions than competitor aircraft, for instance.  

But to move the dial, industry must work collectively and with the support of the government. There are certainly some encouraging signs with the Government recently launching the future of flight challenge. We at London City are absolutely committed to this agenda. With our location and the size of our operation, we are ideally placed to lead the industry on this. 

Another challenge comes from rail. While its future is not entirely clear, HS2 and high-speed continental connections with Eurostar offer a competitive form of transport which is considered to be more sustainable than flying. Clearly, high speed rail does not and is unlikely to ever cater for all parts of the UK. And for some places it currently serves, or will eventually, flying is still quicker and more convenient. So, I am confident rail and air travel can co-exist, and that there is sufficient demand for both. The challenge is in demonstrating that they can co-exist and refuting the claim rail is a replacement for flying. 

We also face a challenge with policy keeping pace with technological innovation. We have always been keen to embrace new technology that can improve what we do at London City Airport. Later this year our air traffic control operations will ‘go digital’, switching to a virtual control tower at NATS’ headquarters in Swanwick. Using advanced camera, imaging and radar systems, the digital tower will improve on the traditional system. Indeed, we are on the edge of a tech-led revolution in air travel which will transform systems and processes, some of which are generations old 

Technologies like biometrics, blockchain and artificial intelligence can create significant operational efficiencies and make substantial improvements in the passenger experience – such as frictionless transit through airports and beyond. Unfortunately, the policy required to adopt these technologies and realise their potential lags someway behind. If we are to avoid the UK falling behind more agile countries, we need policy makers to grasp this issue and create future-proof policy based on technology. 

 

The Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ announcement placed infrastructure at the centre of the UK’s economic growth plans.  What projects would you like to see prioritised as part of ‘Project Speed’? 

I certainly welcome the Prime Ministers ambition and recognition of the important role infrastructure will play in the UK’s recovery. However, I’d urge him to consider three points: 

Firstly, levelling up the UK is hugely important and we at London City will play an important role in providing fast connections to regions around the country – but don’t forget London. It is the engine room of the UK economy, and once COVID passes, the city will need more housing to meet demand, improved digital capacity and a better connected transport system that finally links air, road, rail and sea.  

Secondly, let’s make planning simpler and let’s make it quicker. Projects of strategic importance take too long to determine. We need to find a way to fast track them so that we get consensus quicker rather than the elongated, and costly, planning process that we now have. If government can make progress here then we really might be able to build, build, build. 

Thirdly, airports are essential infrastructure and will be crucial to the recovery. Indeed, we will be the barometer of how successful Global Britain becomes. And if you look around the country, ambition to grow sustainably and to create jobs has been stunted. As the industry recovers, it is my hope that Government works with us to create a dynamic industry that’s green, that’s clean and a wealth generator for communities and regions.  

 

Airspace is sometimes described as our ‘invisible infrastructure in the sky’.  Why is its modernisation so important? 

Our airspace ‘infrastructure’ was designed over 60 years ago. It was never designed to handle the volume and type of traffic it does today. While the Covid-19 virus will have its short-term impacts, we will see over 3 million flights a year in our skies by the early part of the next decade.  

Modernisation will not only enable us to handle that volume safely, it will have tangible benefits for people on the ground. We will be able to keep aircraft higher for longer, providing more reliable and equitable noise respite for communities. It will also enable the airspace to be used more efficiently. This, in turn, means aircraft can operate more efficiently, resulting is considerable reductions of emissions. This is essential if aviation is going to meet its commitments to becoming more sustainable. 

Without modernisation the impact on people on the ground will only increase. Passengers will experience many more delays and cancellations, and we will miss out on new domestic and international connections. All of which will have significant social and economic consequences, at a time when the country is forging its own path after Brexit.  

Clearly, this is an important item on aviation’s agenda and has wider implications for the UK. So, we look forward to learning from the Civil Aviation Authority and the Department for Transport how this will be progressed. 

 

Looking ahead, how can the aviation sector play its part in meeting the UK’s net zero target? 

We remain fully committed to becoming one of the most sustainable airports in the UK and have set a goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 without using carbon off-setting. In December we reached a very important milestone when our operations were rated as carbon neutral by the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme. This achievement underlined our commitment to building a more sustainable future for the airport and the aviation industry. But our efforts have not stopped there. We know very well that reducing carbon emissions and having a more sustainable future is a priority for many people, which we share. 

We have seen a similar commitment to net zero from the rest of the industry, which at the end of last year launched roadmaps on reducing carbon emissions and advancing sustainable fuelsAchieving these goals will need genuine collaboration between industry peers, the government, and the community. We at London City Airport want to play a leading role in this, steering the industry forward in creating a framework that sets out how sustainable growth can be achieved, implementing changes and participating in projects that deliver solutions to make flying more sustainable. 

This is important opportunity for the United Kingdom to lead the rest of the world in making aviation more sustainable. If we can lead the way, we will reap the economic rewards from the necessary innovation and resulting growth. 

In Perspectives we ask the most insightful voices in infrastructure, from established leaders to agents of change, for their take on issues and challenges facing the industry.

This month we talk to Geoff McGrath. Formerly Chief Innovation Officer for McLaren Applied, where he took insights from the world of Formula 1 to drive change in the wider transport sector and beyond, Geoff now leads data science business, CKDelta.

Using anonymised data from across the portfolio of its multinational parent company, CK Hutchison Holdings, CKDelta provides insight into real-world problems and simulates potential solutions across a range of industry sectors including transport, utilities, and retail.

We asked Geoff how CKDelta can help to tackle some of the infrastructure sector’s biggest challenges.

What role can data play in supporting the case for infrastructure investment?

Whether you take the Town & Country Planning or Development Consent Order route, our system sets a high bar for developers when it comes to providing supporting evidence.  This can be time-consuming and expensive, and transport assessments are often months out of date by the time applications are considered.  We provide a more current view of travel patterns which enables developers to back up their proposals with confidence and sense-check them when challenged.

We can also get involved much earlier in the development process.  Having built models using anonymised data we can test and analyse potential solutions, helping to shape transport schemes to provide the optimal solution.  Because we can draw on more than just location data, we are able to add layers of insight that would be beyond the reach of mobile phone operators.  For example, our retail expertise might help identify commercial opportunities which developers may not have considered, or learnings from the ports sector could inform logistics plans for rail operators.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work?

As a data scientist it is certainly an interesting time.  Coronavirus has been the catalyst for an explosion of data – from governments, the media and industry.  Over the last few weeks, we have sadly become all too familiar with a stream of statistics with which we are bombarded daily, from infection rates to hospital admissions.

What has been sorely lacking is meaningful analysis of this data to provide actionable insights.  That is something CKDelta has been working to rectify, alongside partners including the University of Oxford with who we are helping to predict demand for NHS resources.  We also ran some interesting analysis of journeys in and out of London as social distancing guidance hardened into lockdown.  This showed that, overall, the public responded well as the message evolved. However, it’s not just about looking back at what has already happened.  Our analysis could also help to highlight how the return of services could be staged to best serve key workers.

What changes will we see in a post-coronavirus world?

Many pundits are suggesting there will be irreversible changes in behaviour because of the coronavirus lockdown, with a shift to remote working the most popular prediction.  Just how sticky these habits turn out to be remains to be seen, and our data will help to monitor this.

I can certainly see there being some change to traditional travel patterns, potentially reducing rush hour travel for example.  This poses some interesting questions for transport operators who may need to respond with innovative approaches to tariff bands and more – all of which we can model, test and trial in a real-world environment.

Similarly, overseas business travel could be impacted, both because of individuals’ fears of exposure to risk and businesses choosing to source components from within their domestic markets as mitigation against disruption to international supply chains.

Has the current crisis pushed environmental concerns down the industry’s priority list?

If anything, this crisis has given us a glimpse of what the world could look like with lower levels of consumption and its accompanying externalities.  The challenge will be to maintain some of the silver linings of lockdown (such as improved air quality) while economic activity ramps back up.  We can only do this by combining diverse data sets to build accurate models with which we can trial different approaches.

For example, CKDelta works with power networks and urban planners to map future charging needs for electric vehicles.  Not only does this make for the most efficient use of electricity, it creates commercial opportunities for retailers by identifying where drivers will have most dwell time.  A perfect example of a win-win which can only be identified through a deep understanding of data.

What other big challenges should we be thinking about?

Almost every corner of the economy has taken a hit, but tourism must be amongst the sectors most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  Cities and regions are finding out just how reliant they are on visitor spending, providing balance to the debate about over-tourism which was raging in destinations from Bath to Barcelona pre-coronavirus.  Being able to compare the visitor economy pre- and post-lockdown could help the tourism sector demonstrate its value – something it has sometimes struggled to do at both a regional and national level.

That said, it may take some time for consumer confidence to return, meaning intense competition for customers between leisure attractions.  Knowing your customer will be crucial in efficiently targeting marketing budgets which will themselves be under pressure.  Data combined with sector expertise could make the difference between full hotels or empty beds.

Are there reasons for the infrastructure sector to be optimistic about the future?

Infrastructure investment was at the heart of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ strategy and, if anything, will be needed more than ever before.   But we must make sure that, as far as possible, we future proof the networks we build.  That means understanding behaviour and modelling how it might change, something which CKDelta’s diverse data sets and sector expertise makes us uniquely positioned to do.