The Burner Episode #207: Logistics and Production During the Crisis, Italian Lockdown

Craig Gent delves deeper into logistics and production during the crisis – as the market scramble reveals the failures in preparedness and resilience in the NHS. Will ‘just in time’ logistics leave us empty-handed in the face of a pandemic?

Plus, Rosa Gilbert brings us more from Italy – including how to keep it together during the lockdown.

James Butler: Good morning, this is James Butler and it is Tuesday, 31st March and we are still in lockdown.

Now, something a little different for you this morning. As I said to you as we set out on the new series of the burner that you would be hearing from other voices from across the Novara Media team. I meant it, not least, because of the range of expertise across the team is properly dazzling.

You remember last week we talked about some of the work Craig Gent – who, as well as being the head of articles, is effectively our chief operations officer, which a somewhat thankless task – has been doing on logistics and politics. I thought I’d hand over to him for a deeper dip into that.

Craig Gent, Novara Media

CG: Thank you James! Yes, hello, I am Craig Gent and it’s a pleasure to be joining you this morning from Leeds! Which is of course situated in the heart of the People’s Republic of Yorkshire and is, indeed, the capital of Northern England.

Sorry, Manchester, I went there.

In the news around these parts, Sheffield is now firmly establishing itself as a Covid-19 hotspot. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority has had to remind residents that physically blocking visiting city-dwellers from car-parks and lay-bys with cars – and in one case a JCB – could sow unhelpful community divisions, and the Harrogate Convention Centre is the latest venue to be designated as a site for a dedicated ‘Nightingale’ field hospital.

The forthcoming announcement, reported in the Harrogate Advertiser and Yorkshire Post, would see the town taking pressure off the gigantic Leeds General Infirmary, joining a growing raft of venues set to stem the crisis as it develops.

So far, we’ve had Manchester Central, Glasgow’s SEC, the NEC in Birmingham, and of course London’s ExCel Centre, whose mattresses are currently being made by a small healthcare manufacturer just outside Leeds.

Maybe a more unlikely Yorkshire manufacturer to have joined the race to tool-up the NHS is Burberry, whose giant factory in Castleford is being repurposed to make surgical masks.

Meanwhile, a gin distillery at Harrogate Tipple have begun turning their hand to producing hand sanitizer to address the national shortage.

Now it’s easy – seductive, even – to get swept up in the sense that maybe some variation of Blitz spirit will pull us all through the coming storm after all.

Don’t get me wrong: I do think a moment like this will probably always call for some production lines to be repurposed towards more socially-useful ends – and god knows we’ll need to see a few more Lucas Plan-style conversions to see us through the climate crisis over the next century – but, let’s be clear, what we’re seeing right now is a scramble, and not some great symphony of market-driven flexible specialization.

Just yesterday, the BBC reported that one consultant doctor at Bradford Royal Infirmary replenished supplies of heavy-duty protective masks and eye protection with a massive trip to Screwfix, while a consultant anaesthesiologist in the same hospital called up a local distillery to ask if they could help sterilise the masks.

It actually feels grim to me that these stories are recounted with such giddiness, when what they really speak to is an absolute failure to properly equip medical staff, which in turn – and in a National Health Service – is a failure to properly protect us all.

Throughout the world, everything we’ve learned about the pandemic so far, tells us with absolute certainty that medical staff need personal protective equipment. So why the fuck don’t they have it?

Headlines yesterday morning finally zeroed in on this issue, not least since two doctors died last week. At the weekend, NHS England and Public Health England admitted there had been logistical issues in getting the proper equipment. And it remains somewhat unclear whether medical staff in the UK can ever look forward to the level of protective equipment the World Health Organization has advised that they need.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Yesterday on The Burner, James mentioned an incredibly important investigation by Harry Davies for The Guardian which shows how, in 2017, the Department of Health rejected formal recommendations to stockpile “eye protection for all hospital, community, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic patients” in the event of a mass influenza pandemic. Why? Because there was not a significant cost benefit to stockpiling that equipment.

Ah. That word of the moment: stockpiling.

Last week I wrote a piece for Novara Media on why supermarkets’ empty shelves have less to do with mass personal stockpiling and more to do with the organisation of supermarket logistics.

You can find the piece on the Novara Media website, it’s called When Logistics Run Out of Time, and it really takes aim at the governing principle of much of contemporary commercial logistics, which is known as just-in-time.

Very briefly, just-in-time logistics sews together time and space in what it deems is the most cost-efficient way.

A month’s worth of hand sanitizer sat on a pallet in storage? Not cost efficient. Much better to have it show up only when you need it, because goods in movement are more cost-efficient than goods gathering dust. Of course, this also means it’s better for the preceding link in the chain – perhaps the hand sanitizer manufacturer – to only put goods into the supply chain when they know they can get on with moving it, rather than storing it at their own expense.

At every turn, so goes the logic, minimise waste as far as possible. You get the idea. Time is money. Space is money.

In logistics, for this system to work and keep working, it really depends on a degree of fortune telling. For supermarkets, this is pretty easy by now. Every customer in every store creates data for the supermarket. That data is modelled week to week, month to month, year to year, and that vast data set informs the supermarkets’ anticipated purchasing and stock management. And, despite my grievances about supermarket companies’ handling of this crisis, they usually manage it pretty well.

Of course, hospital patients also produce data. We know that each year, flu infections will rise through late autumn and winter and trail off in spring. Thanks to government cuts, the NHS can look forward to a crisis every winter, but I dare say NHS managers do actually try to structure their expenditure around anticipated seasonal challenges where possible.

Nonetheless, allegations of ‘waste’ in the NHS have been popular among politicians throughout this century so far. This is to the extent that for large sections of the public, it seems like a no-brainer given that for all its benefits, the NHS is bloated, inefficient and uneconomical.

That’s basically untrue. But, more importantly, the NHS is not a supermarket. And a pandemic is not merely an unexpected Christmas surge in demand. As James Meadway wrote for Novara Media a couple of weeks ago, a health emergency like this threatens the workforce itself, which, let’s be clear, in the case of the NHS means attaching timebombs to the candle at both ends.

Amidst the various, frankly stupid, assertions that doing this thing or that would be “giving in” to the virus, as if it were some wartime belligerent setting out to curtail our way of life, many commentators have felt they need to remind people this is not actually a war.

And yet, in many senses, it is. There are many parallels we could reach for: the extraordinary curtailment of freedoms, personal sacrifice and disruption; the sense, rather bleakly, that how the chips fall will have as much to do with how prepared we were as much as how valiantly we each rose to the challenge. We will all play our part, both as people and as workers across various professions, but undoubtedly our NHS workers are our foremost soldiers.

There is a reason why the army, for whom logistics was arguably invented, does not function like a supermarket.

Being in a state of continual preparedness means maintaining stores, and precisely not depending on a vast external supply chain in the event of mobilisation. It’s the reason military logistical hubs are generally run by quartermasters rather than algorithms.

No, it is not the most cost-efficient, and yes it means waste, in some narrow economistic sense of the word. But when it comes to the NHS, what would you rather?

When we arrive at the other side of this pandemic, we really must not let our rightful admiration for everyone who helped us through the worst of the crisis sidetrack us from the hard questions about the NHS’s preparedness, and moreover, we should ourselves be prepared to come down harshly on those whose remedies for the social and economic costs of the crisis are to tighten our belts once again, as if the pandemic were some sort of Christmas blowout.

“You are a cost. First reduce waste.” So said Taiichi Ohno, the Japanese industrial engineer and pioneer of just-in-time. If the health of the people is the highest law, as James is fond of saying, it should be a cost – and even a waste – worth paying for.


James Butler: Yes, that is indeed one of my favourite sayings: the health of the people is the highest law.

My thanks to Craig for that. There is so much more in there I hope we will revisit and dig into a bit more in the coming days and weeks as the impact of the coronavirus lays bare. All of these things that we, as a society, generally overlook in terms of how we organise our basic needs, from health care to food. What’s that Warren Buffet phrase? “It’s only when the tide goes out you see whose swimming naked”. We’re looking pretty pant-less as a society, in general, at the moment.

I’m hoping, as this goes on, Craig will continue to bring updates from the People’s Republic of Yorkshire and continue to think deeply about how we, collectively, meet our most basic needs. It turns out that all of these frictionless things have a lot of friction behind them.

Also, this morning, our second part of Rosa Gilbert’s AMA, from lockdown in Florence – one of my favourite cities in the world, perhaps predictably.


Rosa Gilbert, PhD researcher, writer, and co-secretary of the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign

What about the LEGA? Are people there as enthusiastic about their government as Britain seems to be about Boris Johnson? What do you do on lockdown to stay sane?

RG: The first question is: what are the League doing during the pandemic? The answer is they’ve kind of been all over the place. The League govern the two regions in the north that have been most badly hit, Lombardy and Venetto. Because they’re in government there, there is kind of a game play between the League and the Conte government. It’s basically a power play, but also one in terms of shifting blame.

At the beginning of the crisis, Salvini was adamant that this was the fault of migrants and he was accusing the government of being negligent by allowing migrant boats to disembark in Sicily and in the south – all whilst this pandemic was happening. That obviously didn’t land very well. Then, they basically got into a game of opposing whatever measures the government were putting down. When the government was closing and shutting off zones in Lombardy, they were saying “No, we need to keep them open because of business. Open everything. It’s not fair. People want to go to museums”. And now, they’re saying everything should be closed. It’s true the government is now stalling with closing factories and they should be closed, but they are shifting as a power play against the government, when a few weeks ago they were saying the total opposite.

The governor in Lombardy, who is a League governor, his name is Attilio Fontana. He has been all over the place and hasn’t handled the whole thing very well. At first, he was saying it was just a bad cold and it wasn’t a big deal. Then he was hyping up a lot of the panic by appearing on TV wearing a mask, even though there was no one around him. He was on his webcam. He was being hysterical about it. But, also, it’s slightly his responsibility that some of these zones in Lombardy weren’t shut off earlier. It’s a central government decision but he could have pushed for it and called for it – guide that process. That’s on him as well. So, the situation on Bergamo or Breccia is that there are high numbers of deaths. They’re weren’t lockdown until the national lockdown and the health authorities were advising a lockdown a week earlier, maybe even longer.

It’s not just the League who’ve been vying for power and making business-first decisions. The mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, he led a campaign “Milano Non si Ferma” (Milan Does Not Stop) – meaning Milan will carry on, I suppose. That was at the end of February, I think, encouraging people to go out and get a drink, food or an aperitivo in the city centre. Which, obviously, is a terrible idea. It’s the same as Sadiq Khan was doing in London, so there’s a bit of similarity there.

The League, they are still ahead in the polls, they’re still in first place, but I think their popularity has dampened somewhat because of their inconsistency in the last couple of weeks.

How are people coping here, is everyone worried about work as they are in the UK?

Yes, especially because a lot of the Italian economy is based on holiday and tourist work, precarious workers, people who are self-employed, working in the tourism industry and restaurants, bars, that kind of thing. Obviously, all of that collapsing. I live in Florence, where the economy is hugely based on tourism because of all of the Renaissance art, museums, galleries and architecture. The government have introduced a €6oo one-month payment for self-employed and precarious workers. It’s almost like the citizens income that they introduced last year. It’s a one-off. The mechanism that they’ve introduced in the UK – the 80% paid by the government – already exists in Italy for when companies go under or are temporarily unable to provide work during crisis. Workers who are furloughed, as they call it in the UK, go into what’s called cassa integrazione in Italy, so they’re paid 80% of their wage by the state.

What do you do to stop going crazy?

Personally, yeah, it’s very difficult to concentrate and I think you have yourself a bit of a break when it comes to doing work and not being productive because, otherwise you’re going to drive yourself insane. I’m finding it really hard to read book even to relax. I’m quite anxious about the situation, especially in the UK. On this that has really saved me is listening to audiobooks. I don’t know if it’s because it requires concentration or pause but you have to keep up with it. It also feels more passive. So, I’ve always wanted to read Wolf Hall (Hillary Mandel), and then it was always lying on my bookcase untouched, so I’ve downloaded the month’s trial of Audible, which has lots of free stuff at the moment. I downloaded an Italian book to start with but that was a bit boring. And then now I’m a quarter of the way through Wolf Hall. I really love knitting, so it’s a way that I can knit and read at the same time. Cooking, like everyone else who has not got an imagination, I’ve started baking things; making interesting Italian desserts or whatever. But also, keeping the house clean and doing a bit of exercise and eat properly, look after yourself… I know it sounds really stupid and basic but I was going for long walks when I could, when I was still allowed, but now you can go for short runs around the block and I’ve found a stupid cardio video, like high-intensity integral training, which is great because it makes you feel like you are still alive and your body still works. Everyone I’ve said that too are obsessed with it and doing it every day, so it’s worth looking up that video.

Is it true what the press are saying in the UK that it’s so bad in Italy because of multigenerational families living together?

I think it’s a myth created by the British press to get people a bit of hope about why it’s so bad Italy. I haven’t really seen scientific reports about how the disease spread so quickly in Italy, on whether people kissing on the cheek to greet each other, loads of old people sitting around together or out in public together is a factor. I’ve read that something like a third of the population of Bergamo and the surrounding small towns are elderly, so obviously Italy has a much older population than the UK. But the south has a much older population and intergenerational families living together and the virus hasn’t hit yet, at least, so badly in the south. So, I think that’s less of a motivating factor than massive urban areas like in Lombardy, [where people are] doing work that requires face to face and loads of moving around and handling goods and stuff. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, that myth being perpetuated in the British press.

Are people actually sticking to the Lockdown and how long do you think people will be able to stick by it? Have there been any public order situations?

Yes. From where I am in Florence, people are really taking it very seriously and wewe from the beginning, even actually before the official lockdown came into place. There are cases of people going to the beach and doing stupid stuff. Actually, it’s being controlled quite a bit. In Britain, it’s the Derbyshire police flying drones over the Peak district. In Italy, there’s a bigger presence of the police on the streets driving around and also all the different kinds of police; there’s the Carabinieri – national gendarmerie of Italy who primarily carry out domestic policing duties –, there’s the regular police and there’s the financial police, that seem to be loads of finding people and giving them fines. A couple of days ago, a guy name Ian Florence was fined – he was a 150mts away by the house, which is apparently allowed in the rules. The financial police, who are meant to be catching financial criminals, came and fined him for €100. The fines have now gone up, they were €260 and now it’s gone up to between €400 and €3000. I had a look at the statistics and there has been 90,000 fines for the violation of the rules and, on top of that, 2,000 fines for lying; you have to tell the truth about where you are going and why you are outside and if you lie, you’re fined.

James Butler: My thanks to Rosa for that. I’ll confess I haven’t quite mastered interval training yet, but this somewhat brutal daily yoga practice has been reminding me that the disadvantages of working – mostly these days – in a largely sedentary profession. Auch.

Headlines this morning 

Headlines this morning largely take on the question of policing and police – as police do – exceeding their powers under the emergency regulations. Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge – also an interesting historian and provocative judicial thinker – was on the airwaves yesterday warning that overreach of police is the beginnings of a police state. Although Sumption and I would doubtlessly disagree on, well, very much, I find him a tremendously useful person to think with and think against. And here we’re are really not far apart; it really is concerning when people view it as their job not to enforce the regulations made in law but that they interpret as being a minister’s wishes – indeed, their own.

It really is concerning when people view it as their job not to enforce the regulations made in law but that they interpret as being a minister’s wishes – indeed, their own.

Elsewhere, the sheer scale of the coronavirus economic tolls begins to unfold. Warnings about East Asian contraction come from the World Bank. Here, domestically, every sector looks like it’s hurting, including garden centres, which warn thousands of plants will die as they remain closed and they miss early spring, the most profitable part of the year. The effects of this crisis will be visible everywhere. Amey, the outsourcing giant with prison defence and council contracts, refuse any special sick pay for their staff during the crisis; with one of its senior executives in a negotiation with trade unions declaring it less serious than the normal flu. Scum.

Robbie Gibb – Theresa May’s former communication guy and former BBC executive – writes in The Times this morning, warning Labour must not politicise the crisis. In effect, telling them to line up behind the government. Robbie – it’s already political, get bent.

Alright, that’s it for this morning. Please do stay in touch and let me know what you think we should be covering. Hit me up on [email protected]. I’ll try to keep up with emails, although there might be something of a delay in my response.

Stay safe, stay home and don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner and I’ll see you tomorrow.


Someone messed up :/

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