Howard Forster, Chief Operating Officer, Cadent
If proof was ever needed of the value of emergency plans and business continuity processes then the Covid-19 pandemic is it.
As Britain’s biggest gas distribution network and the owner of critical national infrastructure, Cadent has rigorous business continuity plans. We plan for a variety of scenarios, including pandemics, and we put these plans to the test with regular emergency exercises.
However, this has been the first time we have ever had to deploy our plans on such a grand scale. The Covid-19 pandemic is simply unprecedented in modern times.
Customers are at the heart of our business. We have had to ensure, throughout this pandemic, that we continue to meet our prime obligations to our customers: to deliver gas safely and reliably to 11 million homes and businesses across our network – especially the most vulnerable; and keep the public safe during gas emergencies.
Hospitals, homes, factories making essential equipment for the NHS are just some of the customers that rely on gas.
When the lockdown was announced on 23 March organisations had to respond rapidly. Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed and our preparations were already underway.
We had been tracking the virus’ progress around the world and reviewing all our business continuity plans. In February, we activated the gold, silver and bronze crisis command structure, holding regular meetings to ensure we were as prepared as possible.
Whilst business continuity plans can lay much of the groundwork for managing a crisis, organisations still have to react swiftly to a rapidly changing situation.
During his evening briefing on 16 March, the Prime Minister urged people to work from home where possible. We responded quickly and within a few days everyone who could work from home was doing so.
Just three days later, on Thursday 19 March, the Government announced schools would close from the following Monday. Following discussions with industry partners and the Government we ensured that those staff involved in critical functions were classified as ‘key workers’ and notified them throughout the weekend.
This was vital to enable our employees to continue to do their jobs and give them access to schools or childcare for their own children if they needed it.
Protecting those staff who couldn’t work from home and the customers with whom they came into contact has been an overriding priority. For example, our First Call Operatives, who deal with gas escapes, carbon monoxide leaks and other gas emergencies, have to work in the streets and enter people’s homes.
Our procurement and logistics teams pulled out all the stops to deliver to staff sufficient supplies of appropriate, additional PPE, including masks and disposable overalls, hand sanitiser and sanitising wipes.
We rapidly implemented a new social distancing process for staff entering customers’ homes, with residents asked to remain in a separate room while our engineers carried out their work and the engineer then sanitising the working area afterwards.
Reassuring customers, particularly those self-isolating, was vital so a suite of communications, was quickly produced. In addition, van stickers, signage and a radio campaign were implemented to explain the critical nature of our work, after staff carrying out repairs in the street were challenged by members of the public.
Keeping our contact centre running safely has been critical, too. Cadent runs the National Gas Emergency number on behalf of all the gas distribution networks, dealing with more than 1 million calls a year from people reporting gas emergencies. Staff have been dispersed over three sites, enabling social distancing measures to be put in place.
Taking into account the feelings of our customers, we changed the focus of our planned gas mains replacement programme. We targeted critical projects that were already under way and needed to be completed and work that could be done while avoiding contact with the public, for example, that didn’t need us to enter people’s homes.
Covid-19 also proved to be a major challenge for our HR colleagues. Not only did the pandemic strike in the middle of our annual recruitment campaign for apprentices but also at the very point we were inducting new staff into the business.
Face-to-face assessment centres, interviews and training had to be rapidly switched for remote technologies, including video conferencing.
Good communication is vital through any crisis. Keeping in touch with our customers and staff is of course critical. However, just as important were communications with key stakeholders, such as BEIS, OFGEM, local highways authorities, MPs, trade bodies, industry colleagues and our supply chain. We needed their help to do our jobs and not just during lockdown but afterwards, too.
Even in the middle of a crisis you need to look ahead and we began planning for different scenarios, from a continuation of lockdown to the easing of restrictions and the continuation of social distancing. Collaboration with the Government, OFGEM, industry colleagues, the Energy Networks Association, and others is vital as we look at how we deliver key services, such as our gas mains replacement programme.
Looking after your employees is always important but especially in a crisis. We immediately decided to grant full pay to all employees, regardless of their contracts, until at least 31 May. This took away what could have been a two-month period of financial worry, ensuring people were safe, well and able to focus on their jobs.
Access to online mental health resources and regular remote catch-ups with colleagues, often via video conferencing, have helped people stay in touch and tackle feelings of isolation.
The well-being, too, of our most vulnerable customers has been uppermost in our considerations.
The Cadent Foundation, an independent charitable foundation funded by Cadent, donated £240,000 to food bank charity, the Trussell Trust. Where our frontline staff have found vulnerable customers in need, they can spend up to £10 buying them essential groceries and then claim it back from the company.
However, it’s the phenomenal response of our staff that has blown me away. Without prompting, our employees have got involved in a host of community support activities.
These include delivering shopping, prescriptions and meals to those self-isolating, collecting groceries for food banks, fundraising for charities such as NHS Charities Together, making protective face masks for medical staff, donating Easter eggs to children in hospital and diverting a gas main to allow a hospital to install a new unit.
It was their response that prompted us to give all our staff two days paid ‘volunteering leave’ per month. For those employees not able to volunteer outside work, the scheme has allowed them to volunteer during work time.
The response, too, from our fellow utilities, trade bodies and the voluntary sector has been tremendous. We have really come together to do the best for our customers.
Rapid adoption of our existing processes has meant we have been able to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on our operations. Our employees’willingness to go above what is expected and to adapt to new ways of working, has meant we have continued to keep the gas flowing - and delivered community benefits on top of that.
Covid-19 will be a factor in our lives for the forseeable future but with good planning, good staff and good collaboration we can meet the challenges it presents and continue to deliver for our customers.
The story has also festured in Gas International, the magazine of the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers (IGEM)
How we’ve kept gas flowing, supported the UK Government Covid-19 emergency response, looked after our customers, looked after ourselves, and focussed on our future energy needs – this is #OurLockdownStory. Follow our social media channels and this page of our website www.cadentgas.com/ourlockdownstory for more in this special series showcasing the amazing achievements of Cadent’s #keyworkers