The criticism over dwindling grit supplies or stockpiles of swine flu vaccines suggests that public bodies in the UK just can't win when it comes to forward planning, writes Lisa Jardine.
Headline stories in the newspapers this past week have presented us with a set of contradictions. Britain is, apparently, either too good at stock-piling essential products for national emergencies, or hopelessly bad.
After all the high-level planning and strategic management, the swine flu epidemic has turned out to be far less grave than anticipated. So the Department of Health is chided for over-stocking with the H1N1 vaccine, and the consequent waste of public money.
On the other hand, as the winter freeze has proved more serious and of longer duration than forecasters predicted, so the government and local authorities, who find themselves without sufficient supplies of salt and grit, have been roundly chastised for their lack of foresight.
This supposed inability to get essential commodities to where they are needed is considered unforgiveable in the highly developed consumer world in which we live.
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A Point of View, with Lisa Jardine, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated on Sundays at 0850 GMT
The efficient movement of retail goods from point of supply to point of demand is one of the marvels of modern computerised planning, and we take it for granted.
A new name for it has slipped into the language almost unnoticed - at least by me. I think it was the summer before last when I first became aware of all those trucks shuttling across Europe with company names which (in whatever language) included some form of the word "logistics".
That term originally referred to the strategic procurement, maintenance, and transportation of military materials, facilities, and personnel - as the British Army acknowledged when it merged several of its supply services to create the Royal Logistic Corps in 1993.
Today "logistics" is in everyday use to mean the daily dispatch of truck-loads of household consumer goods from producers to vast out-of-town warehouses, and thence to supermarkets nationwide, to be stacked high overnight on the shelves in response to the shifting and often fickle demands of the ordinary shoppers.
The logistics expertise we ask of government is more problematic
In September, as we returned from our summer holidays, logistics anticipated our urge to buy tapenade and houmus. This month, after our Christmas overindulgence it has seen to it that our local supermarket is stocked with fish and fresh vegetables.
As the definition now explains: "Today the complexity of production logistics can be modelled, analysed, visualised and optimised by plant simulation software."
The speed and sophistication with which complex systems have been developed to optimize the movement of goods between source and supermarket has been driven by the retailers' desire for commercial profit.
Still, in case we imagine that it is modern capitalism alone which has stimulated the exploitation of cost differentials between point of origin and point of sale, it is worth remembering that the earliest "voyages of discovery" were sponsored and financed by those with an interest in establishing a less costly route home for the exotic goods they found at far-flung locations.
In the early 1500s, the King of Portugal, whose international prestige was closely connected with Portugal's domination of the booming European spice trade, invested heavily in speculative seaborne ventures. It was his entrepreneurialism which led to Portugal's backing of Vasco da Gama's expeditions to round the southernmost tip of Africa, whence it was possible to reach India and the Moluccas without going overland.
The take-up of swine flu vaccines has been low
A sea-route, if it proved safely navigable, would bypass the heavy mark-up in the form of customs and other duties incurred when travelling from country to country through unfriendly territories. The lower prices the Portuguese would be able to ask for pepper as a result would draw European trade in it away from their traditional market-locations in Venice and Genoa, towards Lisbon.
Da Gama's successful first voyage had an immediate impact on European pepper prices. In 1501 Girolamo Priuli, a Venetian nobleman, recorded in his diary:
"Now that this new route is found, the King of Portugal will bring all the spices to Lisbon. And there is no doubt that the Hungarians, Germans, Flemish and French, who formerly came to Venice to spend their money on spices, will all turn towards Lisbon, for it is nearer to them, and easier to reach.
"Furthermore [he went on], spices via this route will be better priced. The mark up for transit through the countries of the Sultan and Venice is so great that whatever the spices cost in Calicut in ducats, the price in Venice has to be multiplied sixty or a hundred times."
Five centuries on, supermarket chains in a highly competitive market know that getting the goods consumers want into the right location at the right time is still the way to maximize profit.
Which is perhaps why the logistics expertise we ask of government is more problematic. Government advice to local councils before the wintry weather, on the basis of the Met Office's predictive modelling of winter weather patterns, was to stock six days' worth of salt for emergency use.
It would have been a 'dereliction of duty', another expert said, if the government had not ordered enough vaccine to cover everyone
As the big freeze continued, this provision, based on recent winter needs, proved quite inadequate - apparently they should have stockpiled at least enough for a fortnight, and as the snow fell again across the country this week, even that level of preparedness looked too low.
On the other hand, whatever the statistical models say, any public body is likely to find themselves accused of waste and profligacy if they overstock. Local health authorities find themselves with much of the 90 million doses of H1N1 vaccine they contracted to purchase on their hands and are castigated accordingly - of those eligible for the vaccine, so far only one in three has chosen to have it.
'Stockpiling can pay'
Asked to defend this situation, the government's director of immunisation, Professor David Salisbury, said last week: "We are in discussion with Glaxo Smith Kline about future supplies of the vaccine. We have to keep a stockpile for ourselves anyway because we don't know what's going to happen in 2010. If there was a resurgence we would look very foolish if we had disposed of a valuable stockpile."
It would have been a "dereliction of duty", another expert said, if the government had not ordered enough vaccine to cover everyone.
Councils were warned to reduce gritting levels
Actually, historically, stockpiling unwanted goods has occasionally paid off.
From 1672 to 1674, Sir Jonas Moore, surveyor-general of the English Ordnance Office, and an enthusiastic supporter of the recently-founded Royal Society, was responsible for supplying armaments to the English Navy during the third Anglo-Dutch War.
When the English Fleet failed to distinguish itself in engagement after engagement, it began loudly to be suggested that the problem lay with the logistics: its officials were accused of having deliberately withheld essential military supplies during a series of sea battles off the Schonveld.
The Ordnance Office was forced to issue an official denial: Moore himself had sailed out with six great ammunition ships to replenish the Navy's supplies of gunpowder and shot. Far from there having been a shortfall, quantities of gunpowder had, they insisted, been returned to Portsmouth after the battle was over.
In 1675 Sir Jonas Moore took on responsibility for building an astronomical observatory at Greenwich, with a view to compiling the kind of accurate astronomical tables he believed would help the English Navy to perform better.
The £500 allocated to Christopher Wren for the building project was raised by selling off those 690 barrels of surplus gunpowder from the six ship-loads Moore had accompanied to the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, to supply the English Fleet in battle.
When a public body tackles any complex logistical problem, we are all too ready to label it as doomed in advance
It seems that logistics is more powerful at accurately predicting needs when its strategies are based upon large numbers of individual consumer transactions, so that the data can give a better statistical model.
Perhaps if Britain - like the United States and much of Europe - had a law requiring householders to clear the pavement outside their property of snow and ice, customers would demand an adequate supply of materials, logistics would anticipate that seasonal demand, and supermarkets would stock rock salt and grit in winter.
Supply and demand has also, as it happens, controlled the distribution of swine flu vaccine in America. There you purchase your H1N1 shots from your local pharmacy.
As it is, here in Britain, when a public body tackles any complex logistical problem, we are all too ready to label it as doomed in advance, long before the organisation in question has finished implementing its computer-simulated, statistically-informed plan of action for the current emergency.
So I had intended to conclude this Point of View with the observation that we really ought to take these British doom-laden predictions with a very large pinch of salt. Except that I am reliably told that there is currently none available.
Here is a selection of your comments.
Storing road salt is expensive - we're talking millions of thousands of tonnes at every road depot - and it needs to be stored under cover otherwise the stuff washes away when it rains. Both the salt and cyanide (added beforehand as an anti-caking agent) are toxic to freshwater life and liable to cause much damage. Creating sufficient storage for the amounts suggested in this article is not viable and our taxes would be better spent elsewhere. What would help is for drivers to become more aware how to drive in icy conditions instead of blaming the authorities for the state of the road every time we get bad weather. Scandinavian countries do not have the problems we have in this respect.
David Robinson, Thurso, Scotland
I was puzzled by the council's falling in line with government recommendations to only stock six days worth of salt and grit. I know that Britain has more mild winters than Michigan, but I have also heard that in the 1700 and 1800s winters there were very cold and snowy. I hear that in the 1960s people saw a resurgence of this. Salt and grit are not as perishable as serum; what about; "It's Winter" do Councillors not understand?
Linn Crescentia, Ada, MI
Our local large supermarket's salt shelves were soon empty. The snow doesn't usually stay long enough to need householders to take prolonged action. It wasn't prediction that was at fault. Someone has to take a financial risk by having a large buffer of deliverable stocks - for an apparently rare condition. Always catering for the highest potential peak demand in any commodity is inefficient and costly.
It is not true that supermarkets get their logistics right. The evidence is the tons of perfectly good food they throw away every day.
Judi , Nottingham
Yes, we've got too much vaccine & not enough grit, but if it *had* gone the other way, they would've looked fantastic. The government and local councils would've looked really organised and efficient: no-one suffering swine flu and only a little bit of grit needed. The hospitals would've been empty and loads of scheduled ops would've been done, bringing the waiting lists down. It would've been really good. Unfortunately, that's not the way it went. Shame.
Puddingandpi, Brighton UK
The NHS is paying the price for a lack of road salting by the councils. I know that Crosshouse Hospital was dealing with 30 broken wrists a day and I have a friend who has broken her ankle so badly she required an operation. Multiply this situation throughout the country and it is clear that more salt should be stockpiled and available for all areas including sidestreets and supermarket car parks in icy weather. It would be a lot cheaper than fixing broken bones.
Linda Maclellan, Isle of islay
I can't help feeling that too much of the government's operations are controlled from Whitehall. Much more should be trusted to the people on the ground, locally. Most people thrive with more responsibility. I just cannot see how Whitehall can possibly know, for example, how much grit is needed in Surrey. Leave it to the locals!
Steve Hill, Farnham, Surrey
These days people just take so much for granted than when the slightest hiccup to their normal lifestyle occurs it has a greater effect than the actual event. They are so bothered about their own little worlds that they fail to see the bigger picture and are so time poor cash rich that there is no room for certain tasks taking longer - eg getting to work. It's just so amazing to see events taken in their stride years ago have such an effect today. We have come to rely too much on certain things that when they are removed mass panic and hysteria sets in. Perhaps more of these events should happen so that we can get used to it.
Rob, Wakefield, England