In place of attempting to review a year that – in view of COVID-19 and its widespread negative impact across the globe – everyone is glad to see fade into the distance, Alistair Enser takes the opportunity to assess the current state of play in the security business sector and consider what its constituent practitioners and organisations can and must do to help out in 2021
As we leave 2020 behind and move cautiously into a New Year wherein the ongoing impact of Coronavirus necessarily remains the dominant topic for discourse, the $64,000 question on everyone’s lips is: “When we can expect a return to some degree of normality?” With more than three-quarters of England’s population initially entering 2021 under the strictest Tier Four lockdown measures, the return of students to schools and universities delayed and over 50,000 COVID-19 cases being recorded daily, at this point in time it’s pretty difficult to see normality returning in the near future.
Yes, it’s the case that the second Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved and can now be administered alongside the existing Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but there’s a growing debate around who to vaccinate first, while a reversal in approach will now see more people receive an initial dose instead of efforts being made to ensure that those who had the first shot receive the required second dosage within 21 days. Instead, the second dose will now be administered within 12 weeks in a determined bid to ensure that a larger number of people receive at least the benefit of an initial dosage.
Even then, the pace of vaccination is frustratingly slow, with some 944,539 individuals in the UK having received the first dose of vaccine as of Thursday 31 December. Based on the UK’s current population figures, it will take five years to administer the first dose alone to everyone resident in the nation. It’s appreciated that many – children among them – will never need or receive the vaccine, while something like 14% of the population will decline any dosage, but the statistics outlined here duly reveal the enormity of the task ahead.
Room for improvement
The development of (and approval for) the vaccines is nothing short of amazing, but the UK’s initial claim of being the first to have a vaccine available is beginning to pale in comparison with countries such as Germany, which took longer to have a vaccine approved for use across the European Union, but used the time well to develop the infrastructure required to administer that vaccine. This was a key recommendation in an interesting position paper authored by the Tony Blair Foundation, which also recommends the introduction of Health Passports. Those few weeks where a vaccine was approved for use in the UK may have made no difference after all if we cannot roll-out that vaccine to the population on a faster footing. It could be a case of the hare and the tortoise.
Equally, other countries’ adoption of simpler – if somewhat stricter – lockdown measures may have been more successful at controlling behaviours and, ultimately, limiting the spread of infection. A study transacted by researchers at University College London has revealed that 90% of people understood the rules laid down during the first UK lockdown back in March last year. By July, though, that figure had dropped to just 45%.
Now, with so many tiers, and each of them delivered with different rules, is it any surprise that more people have been bending the rules? Surely any multi-tiered system that requires you to check restrictions based on putting your postcode into a website is ripe for misunderstanding and invites abuse?
There’s a very strong argument to be made for the short, sharp shock of a strict lockdown akin to the one we experienced earlier in 2020, which dispenses with tiers entirely and insists that, with a few exceptions, everyone remains at home for a short period. The latest one began on Tuesday 5 January with a view towards relieving the massive pressure on a National Health Service that’s rapidly reaching breaking point.
The decision was taken in the wake of a sharp rise in infections, hospital admissions and case rates across the country. Hospitals are now under more pressure than at any point throughout the pandemic. On Monday 4 January, there were 26,626 COVID patients in hospital in England (representing an increase of over 30% in just one week), with the April 2020 hospital admissions peak surpassed by 40%. The drastic jump in cases has been attributed to the new variant of COVID-19, which scientists have confirmed is between 50% and 70% more transmissible.
The case rate in England up to Tuesday 29 December was 478.5 per 100,000 members of the population (ie three times higher than on Tuesday 1 December when the case rate was 151.3). On Sunday 3 January, no fewer than 454 deaths were reported, with 4,228 registered during the previous week (a 24% increase on the prior seven days). To say that we find ourselves in a perilous situation would be something of an understatement.
We need to allow the Government space to put a concentrated vaccination programme into effect and give it time to introduce a vaccine ‘passport’ that allows those who possess one to lead more of a ‘normal’ life once the national lockdown is relaxed. Let’s not forget that, at the time of a survey run in December, 68% of respondents supported the use of such a passport.
It’s just as well that Tier Four restrictions (and stricter) require 44 million people to stay at home because a trip to a city centre High Street right now would make for a pretty depressing experience. The streets are empty and once bustling shops, restaurants and pubs closed to patrons. Many are boarded up and, sadly, some will never re-open. It’s estimated that 177,000 retail jobs were lost in 2020.
Public transport usage (ie the use of transport as a whole) remains at an all-time low level and, at this juncture, it’s hard to see it ever returning to the levels once witnessed in London, for example, as working from home – with occasional visits to the office for meetings – becomes the ‘new normal’. Commercial premises remain closed or open to only a few members of staff (in short, those who have to visit the workplace to fulfil the remit of their role).
Such ‘shift patterns’ – for the want of a better phrase – are effectively ‘re-wiring’ the public spaces we inhabit and even transforming national housebuilding policy, which has been revised specifically to address the opportunity of converting High Street retail properties for residential use.
On the basis that ‘normality’ as we perceive it isn’t going to return for some time to come, what do we need to be doing as security professionals in 2021? To address that particular question in the necessary degree of detail, in the first instance let’s consider the risk climate as it pertains today.
The latest crime figures for England and Wales issued by the Office for National Statistics depict a 15% decrease in thefts in the year to June 2020, but a 3% uptick in violence against the person and homicides (the latter doesn’t include the 39 Vietnamese nationals who were the victims of the tragic incident uncovered at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays last October). Reflecting on these figures, organisations should be focusing on the safety of their people, many of whom are working from home, in under-staffed offices or even on their own in situations that are now more precarious than before.
Rising cyber attacks
Separately, there has been a huge increase in cyber attacks in the past year, with a 715% year-on-year rise in ransomware episodes, for example. The burgeoning of wider cyber security attacks may be down to the spare time that many now have in which to conduct them coupled with the propensity for bad actors to work on behalf of rogue nations. Many such attacks are the work of opportunistic criminals taking advantage of organisations that, in their rush to digitise operations during the pandemic, have adopted poorly-designed systems. Inevitably, this leaves them vulnerable in the cyber domain.
For their part, security professionals should focus on three core considerations in 2021 (all of which build on arguments outlined throughout 2020). They need to recognise the risk, place their trust in technology and, last but not least, move with agility. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
When it comes to recognising the risk, it’s fair to state that the subject of risk/risk management/risk posture is steadily climbing the corporate agenda and should rightly be an issue for the Board. Indeed, the security business sector’s constituent practitioners have argued for this to be so for many years.
There’s clear evidence that companies are now redesigning their supply chains, systems and processes in order to better address ‘Just in Case’ scenarios, instead of focusing solely on ‘Just in Time’. Security managers should leverage their senior executives’ renewed interest in risk to build resilience and preparedness right across their organisations, ably supported by the correct combination of technology, people and processes. Protecting people, data and reputations is now more important than ever before.
What about the technology angle? Security professionals should consider how they can further digitise their security domain, but do so correctly and with the appropriate protection in place to ensure that systems don’t invite hackers. As has been stated previously, most organisations with even the most basic of electronic security systems in place already have the foundations upon which advanced, information-driven systems can be built. These will allow remote monitoring, management and even maintenance and can provide highly valuable information that supports prudent business decisions, delivers greater efficiencies and saves money. The overriding aim ought to be to turn the security ecosystem into an asset rather than it continuing to be viewed by the hierarchy as little other than a bottom line cost.
Requirement for agility
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that agility offers the best way for businesses to adapt to new situations and manage threats. It involves speedy decision-making, placing trust in those resident across an organisation and, crucially, empowering them to make decisions.
Agility also requires the rapid deployment of systems and procedures, coupled with the regular assessment of how all of them can be improved based on the insight that they subsequently provide. It’s really all about being fleet of foot, not flat-footed. Therefore, think about agility when building the security system and seek to ‘design out’ complexity wherever and whenever possible.
Whether we’re in a Tier Four lockdown or (as is the case at present) a full national lockdown, such a scenario can be an enabler for infrastructure. education and commercial sector organisations to rethink their strategy, accelerate projects, focus on digitisation and review investment strategies. They can do so unencumbered by the normal complexities inherent within the day-to-day working environment, allowing any upgrades and refits deemed necessary to proceed at pace.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that, by dint of working in partnership with their customers and accepted supply chains, skilled practitioners operating diligently within the UK’s security business sector will have a key role to play in helping to build the Brave New World.
Alistair Enser is CEO at Reliance High-Tech (www.reliancehightech.co.uk)