What’s the best way to lead your people through a pandemic when there’s no rule book and it’s not been done in living memory? In the first of a three-part interview, Rosie Allsopp talks to Deputy Gavin St Pier to find out.
If you had to sum up 2020 in a single word, it would most probably be ‘unprecedented’. The emergence of a novel coronavirus at the start of the year is something we never saw coming. As the year’s unfolded we’ve watched it move from East to West resulting in thousands of deaths, millions of people forced to stay home, a tanking global economy and no sign yet of any end to the situation.
As governments around the world scrambled to deal with Covid-19 it’s become clear that some countries have dealt with the situation more effectively than others. All we will say about that is at the time of writing, Guernsey has had no known active cases since 30th April. Since June life has for most of us returned mostly back to normal and if you walk down the High Street on a busy Saturday you could almost be forgiven for wondering if it’s all been a weird dream.
For people living in Guernsey three main players have been the face of the war on Covid-19. Chief Minister Deputy Gavin St Pier flanked by Health and Social Care President Deputy Heidi Soulsby and Director of Public Health Dr Nicola Brink have calmly and efficiently faced the public week after week, urging the population to stay calm, keep washing their hands, not to spread rumours or the virus. It’s fair to say that from the outset they were honest and open in their approach and it’s been eagerly accepted by islanders who are now reaping the benefits of the approach they took.
Calm and efficient
You wonder how did they do it? Especially when the virus continues to proliferate elsewhere. You could put it down to the fact that as a small island Guernsey can close its borders and keep the virus out. But I think it’s more than that. Even Jersey, which managed a brief spell without Covid in July, still can’t shake off that last handful of cases that seem to persist.
Many islanders put Guernsey’s success at becoming covid-free down to the leadership and decisions made by St Pier, Brink and Soulsby and the island’s Civil Contingencies Authority. I asked him how did they lead islanders through a situation that no-one could have predicted?
Putting the plan into action
“You say you never imagine this coming,” he says.
“We had – as the CCA – had a pandemic as the highest risk on the island’s risk register for a number of years. So we always identified that risk, albeit the planning of course was for a flu pandemic rather than a novel virus.
“We’d had the flu pandemic desktop exercise at the back end of last year so it was all quite timely in that sense. The risk of pandemic had been acknowledged and recognised. We had a rough game plan in our head as to how we might expect to react to it.”
Deputy St Pier says there have been so many meetings since the CCA was first convened back at the start of the year it’s difficult to remember what went through his head when they realised what they might be dealing with.
“I think you’ve got to remember that the way this story evolved, it wasn’t a big bang event in the sense that you wake up one day and suddenly a decision was required.
“There was an evolution even though it was obviously fairly rapid as we were moving though the back end of January and February and starting to see cases come out of China and into the rest of the world and started to get briefings from the team about the perceived level of risk and that it could become a global pandemic. I describe it as rising up the radar screen of the list of things to be worrying about. And then of course we went into February half-term we started to have some travel restrictions imposed. You have to go back to the context of it being an emerging crisis rather than an overnight crisis, I guess.”
“I think the preparedness came from working as a team with no egos. Those had been left at the door”
The critical week, he says, was that of 9th March when he realised that this was a very significant event and no-one knew how it would conclude. Nothing can prepare you for something like this, so how did he?
“No, you’re right, nothing can prepare you. I think for me the strength is that it’s been very much a team approach and an excellent working relationship with all the key players, not only from the Director of Public Health, but the Chief Executive and his team, Heidi as the President of Health and Social Care so it’s been a very tight knit team.
“We developed a program of regular contact between that group so that we were constantly briefed. From quite early on, a tight team met every day, 7 days a week at midday, initially in person and then remotely. That avoided any surprises but I think the preparedness came from working as a team with no egos. Those had been left at the door and the focus was very much on processing information to get to what we hoped would be the right series of decisions.”
Focused on the task
While he says there was never a point where he felt the task was insurmountable, there were times when it became impossible to consider anything other than the task at hand.
“I think it’s undoubtedly been the most stressful few weeks in my professional working life. There were probably about three or four weeks from the 10th/11th March rolling right through to mid-April when for the first time in my life I had no capacity to take in information from other sources in the sense that I couldn’t take in news or international news.
“If you had asked me what is happening in Paris or London or New York I would not have been able to answer you because the only information I was capable of receiving and processing was that which I needed to deal with the local situation. That I suppose gives an indication of the level of pressure. I have not experienced that before, an incapacity to process information other than that which I needed.”
See Wednesday’s edition of Business Eye to find out how clear and honest communication helped win the hearts and minds of the Guernsey public
Photograph: L-R: Deputy Heidi Soulsby, Deputy Gavin St Pier, Dr Nicola Brink and Paul Whitfield at an early Covid-19 media briefing.