The last global pandemic was the Spanish Flu crisis of 1918. This is well out of living memory for most of the population, including everyone in government. It was also a time when the world was very different from today. This means that there is a limit to how much looking at that event can help to deal with the Coronavirus. As a result, there is probably going to be a lot of trial and error on the part of everyone involved, including the government, the police and the haulage industry.
A century of change since the Spanish Flu
International trade is nothing new, in fact, global trade is nothing particularly new. It’s been around since the invention of ships which were capable of crossing oceans. At the time of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the global logistics industry was arguably a reality, but it still wasn’t anything remotely close to what we have today. Many goods were still manufactured (or grown) close to where they would be sold, especially if they had short shelf lives and, of course, the global population was much smaller, as was the population of the UK.
Putting all that together, it’s easy to see that, even with the UK’s participation in WWI, the global logistics industry was under much less pressure than it is today. It’s also easy to see that the UK’s domestic haulage industry was under substantially less pressure than it is today. Now, there is, literally, an urgent need for vital products to be moved around the UK. These products include medical supplies, food and, of course, toilet paper. Everyone in the logistics industry is needed to make that happen.
The logistics industry is more than just HGV drivers
Although HGV drivers may be the public faces of the logistics industry, they rely on a vast support network. To begin with, HGVs do not just clean, maintain and, if necessary, repair themselves. HGV drivers can often undertake a certain level of care and maintenance, but they cannot do everything and even if they could they would still need supplies from cleaning materials to spare parts. Then there are the warehouse teams who organize the goods to be loaded and unloaded and the back-office staff who handle all the necessary organization.
In short, the logistics industry depends on a huge number of people to be able to function and while some of these people can work from home, many need to be on-site (or on the road). Usually, this is not a problem, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, increasing numbers of logistics workers have reported issues with the police and other officials when trying to get to work.
The government has responded by providing an open letter confirming that all logistics work is considered essential and that therefore all logistics workers, regardless of their job role or place of work, should be allowed to undertake any travel considered essential for their business.
The challenge of defining “essential”
It is interesting that the government has emphasized that it wishes to support all supply chains, not just those related to food and medicine. Intentionally or not, it does highlight the complexity of defining what is and is not essential, given that so much depends on an individual’s situation.
For example, while it might be reasonable to tell an adult that they will need to hold off on clothes purchases, for the time being, you cannot just tell a child to stop growing because its parents cannot buy it new clothes. In fact, even for adults, there comes a point when new clothes and shoes become a must rather than a want. What’s more, it’s arguably essential that as many businesses as possible are allowed to continue trading as much as possible, so that livelihoods can be protected as much as lives.