During the COVID-19 pandemic, measures to reduce social contacts were applied in most countries; something that was only viable because the logistics sector continued to deliver. However, in the face of a lack of pandemic preparedness and planning from the government, how did different parts of the sector respond? In this blog, Dr Hua Wei, Dr Sarah Daniels, Dr Carl Whitfield, and Professor Martie van Tongeren discuss how the UK logistics sector and its delivery workers responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what needs to be done to strengthen their capacity in planning for similar responses in the future.
- During the pandemic, the volume of Internet sales increased by more than 50%.
- In lieu of government guidance, companies in the UK logistics sector rapidly implemented a wide range of risk mitigation measures (RMMs).
- The effects of the RMMs were estimated using mathematical models, which can help policymakers prepare for future pandemics and disruption.
- A more systematic approach is needed to better prepare the sector in the event of similar future threats.
Despite the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, many parts of the UK economy kept going. Working from home (WFH) and social distancing measures meant fewer trips were made; the National Travel Survey found that in England average trips per person was down 22% in 2020 compared to 2019. Nevertheless, retail sales continued to grow. From April 2020 to November 2021, the average monthly retail sales index was up 3.5%, compared to 2019 level. Only during four months (April and May 2020, January and February 2021), when the nation was in complete lockdown, saw the index drop below the 2019 level.
Meanwhile, social distancing measures facilitated a dramatic upward trend of ordering online. Between April 2020 and November 2021, Internet sales as a proportion of all retailing increased to 30.6% on average, compared to a 2019 average of 19.2%, suggesting an increase in delivery volume of more than 50%.
These figures point out a simple fact; the UK logistics sector played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic. A large proportion of the public were able to remain at home and thereby reduce transmissions because the delivery workers were on the road.
At the beginning of the pandemic, little knowledge was available about airborne and surface transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and little was known about the level of risk workers were facing during the delivery of groceries and goods to (and sometimes into) people’s homes. As a substantial proportion of delivery workers are self-employed – such as franchised parcel couriers or app-based takeaway food riders – there were concerns about lack of sick pay and availability of protective measures among this population. An analysis of COVID-19 mortality in England showed that, similar to other essential workers, van drivers had an increased risk of death from COVID-19, compared to non-essential workers. It is therefore important to understand what RMMs were implemented within this sector.
What we found
Our consultations with logistics companies found that each company developed their own portfolio of measures. These included infection and transmission control measures, such as contact-free delivery, social distancing, and Information Instruction & Training (IIT), as well as organizational measures, such as financial support for the self-employed drivers and engaged collaborative activities within the sector and with relevant government departments. Company representatives also raised concerns about mental health impact such as e-presenteeism, overworking, and burnout due to sustained high workload and prolonged WFH.
Our model simulations highlighted some key interventions, such as fixed pairing of drivers (for instance, large-items where deliveries are carried out in pairs, was predicted to reduce driver-initiated outbreaks by ~50%) and office staff WFH, which was predicted to have a relatively large impact on workplace transmission (reducing outbreak incidence by ~30-50%). In addition, identifying moderate and high-risk contact scenarios (such as car-sharing, close-proximity working) and deploying group isolation of these employees (if one tests positive, all close contacts isolate) can be an effective combination. In critical work sectors, these group isolation measures need to be balanced against inefficient isolation of contacts (for instance, isolation of larger teams who only have brief face-to-face contacts) which can result in large numbers of uninfected employees isolating at one time.
Contacts due to accommodation sharing and carpooling were also modelled to understand their impact on workplace outbreak probability. Based on the consultations with companies, we assumed a relatively high percentage of workers (1 in 10) were living in shared accommodation and 1 in 10 would share a car to work. In this scenario, the effect of isolation of all the carpooling contacts following a positive test was small but notable. For workers who house-share, even though household transmission was common, we saw again only a small impact on workplace outbreak probability (relative to other measures) of household isolation.
This suggests that house sharing and car sharing does not significantly increase workplace transmission. This does not mean, however, that household isolation measures overall had little impact during the pandemic, as these were imposed at the national scale, and so will have also reduced the introduction of new infections into the workplace. Other social contacts, such as socialising outside of work hours, between employees were not modelled due to lack of data, but could also play a significant role in workplace outbreaks.
Lessons for the future
The sector has done an extraordinary job to respond to this pandemic rapidly and effectively. To translate the learnings into practice and to strengthen the workplace’s pandemic preparedness for the future, key aspects were identified that needed a more systematic approach.
First, at the beginning of the pandemic many of the companies collaborated to produce and share guidance. However, these activities appeared ad hoc, and as the pandemic evolved, most of them ceased or reduced in frequency.
- This suggests a more coherent communication strategy is needed for continuous engagement, information sharing and response planning.
Second, as new variants of the coronavirus appeared, government guidance took time to adapt, leading the logistics sector to develop resourceful non-pharmaceutical interventions themselves. They also strengthened their capability to collect COVID-related data within their workforce for the purpose of monitoring workplace infection, transmission, and provide evidence for internal decision making.
- Based on these learnings, a response toolset can be created to guide intervention development and data collection.
Third, within the logistics/home delivery sector many delivery drivers work under precarious employment conditions and do not receive statutory sick pay, which in turn can lead to presenteeism and increase the risk of workplace transmissions.
- Therefore, a coherent sectoral strategy for public health emergency response should also give careful consideration to the precariously employed to address the increased risks for presenteeism.
Finally, in addition to risk of transmission, the potential for risk mitigation measures to impact on mental health should be carefully considered.
This research is funded by the UKRI COVID-19 Rapid Response call. The research team also includes Professor David Denning, Professor Ian Hall, Dr Yang Han, Professor Martyn Regan and Professor Arpana Verma.