The Government will soon need to announce a date for a national restart. This could be as soon as May 30 and as late as July 30. Are we prepared for this?
The Government will need to be able to show that it has a clear and credible restart plan because many sectors will need to be ready in advance. For most, this will require about two weeks - but some may require up to six weeks. This means that some preparation may need to start as early as next week.
Flattening a curve also means lengthening its duration. The US and the UK will be devastated by the health effects of this crisis, because of their slow and poorly managed early response, resulting in a short sharp peak for these countries. Perversely, they are likely to be able to restart their economy earlier than a careful country like Ireland.
When we do restart, the speed and suddenness of reversal will take the majority by surprise. It will be critical for the Government to give early leadership by announcing a plausible range of start-up dates as soon as possible. This will facilitate the planning and preparation that will be needed to help Ireland to catch up with the early restarters.
The most important thing is to publicise the mechanism of the restart; the date is not that important. In these circumstances, governments typically procrastinate because of the need to be cautious about raising false hopes. This hampers planning and retards a successful restart.
In the matter of avoiding getting the date wrong, the Government should share a range of working scenarios for best-case, likely, and worst-case dates. These scenarios are probably only separated by two weeks from each other, the implementation of each will be the same - only the start date will vary.
The priority is to have a plan prepared. This will facilitate an orderly restart, so that dates for critical early preparations can be identified.
Trying to make a case for the urgency of devising, announcing and implementing a restart plan faces a number of challenges.
In the first instance, it is not unusual to encounter a reluctance to plan for success in the middle of a life-threatening crisis. Some regard this as an indecent, or unnecessary, luxury. But governments can't be squeamish because there will always be lurking opportunists, just waiting to unscrupulously take advantage of unpreparedness.
Labour markets will be the second challenge. These are the result of a delicately balanced series of choices, as individual workers consider pay, security, conditions and travel. This is especially true for lower-paid and less-skilled workers. Without an orderly and planned restart, there will not be time to re-hire enough workers at economic rates.
This will be further complicated by the potential difficulties of a 'weaning off' from the [rightly] generous government supplementary wage schemes.
The third challenge is the lack of official urgency and priority about this issue. All branches of the public service are doing an outstanding job in this crisis, which must never be forgotten. However, this group are the only part of society that currently have income security. This creates the very real danger of a group-think evolving that becomes increasingly disconnected from the urgency of the tax-paying private sector's restart needs.
The final challenge will be the business risk of restarting too early. For many, it will be uneconomic to restart until they are sure that volumes of business exist that will justify taking on running costs. This has the potential to induce the worst of all worlds - a sort of Mexican standoff - resulting in a stagnating economy in which everybody is waiting for everyone else to move first.
It will be difficult to achieve a consensus because there will be complexity and fragmentation in the business world which is likely to result in three main types of restart responses.
One cohort will want to get ahead of the curve by being 'first-up-and-best-dressed' to win extra market share after a period of many business failures.
The second will be the 'watch-and-wait' group who will spend the bare minimum to get restarted, withholding expenditure until more certain trading and cashflow conditions return.
The last group will consist of companies that will never re-open for reasons that will range from a systemic collapse of their sector, liquidity losses through cash-flow cessation, or due to a reassessment of priorities by proprietors who retire early.
As the restart date approaches, pressure on the Government will intensify. In the worst case this could lead to a premature restart - with serious health implications. This will be driven by increasingly impatient business forces within the State as well as from our trade partners abroad - especially if these places halt social distancing before we do.
The best way for the Government to deal with this pressure will be to pre-empt it by the early publication of a restart plan. There is no better calming in a crisis than the certainty of a plan. We need to move from saying a blanket 'no' to a more nuanced approach of saying early to some sectors: 'yes, you are now deemed essential', while saying to others: 'not yet, just wait for another fortnight'.
What will a successful start-back plan look like? It will have three main components. First, it will define at least three start-back target dates - best-case, likely-case and worst-case. Second, it will announce which sectors will be listed for resumption, prior to a more gradual restart, so that necessary preparations are begun. Third, it will describe the working 'rules' for each stage of restart.
The start-back dates are still uncertain, so publishing a range of target dates will suffice, so that everybody is using the same assumptions.
In planning, the start-back sectors will need to be organised as three distinct groups.
A first group will need the longest restart preparations of four to six weeks. This group will include some types of science-based manufacturing that require conformance with elaborate certification, calibration and commissioning protocols. It will also include critical sectoral suppliers, such as cement works that can be slow to start from 'cold'.
A second group, such as hotels, swimming pools and spas, will need up to a month for preparatory deep-cleaning activities. This group may also include complex institutions, such as the courts, which are critically dependent on advanced case scheduling. This group will also include specialist retailers who will need time to re-stock.
Once retail and business recommences, there will be a tsunami of requests for media advertising, which also takes time to commission, produce and place in advance.
The last group - large offices, manufacturing, catering, gyms, visitor centres, childcare facilities, schools and sports facilities - will all need less than a fortnight to prepare. There will, of course, also be those many smaller shops, offices, businesses and institution that will be able to open with 24 hours' notice.
All of this has a significant potential to experience 'bottlenecks' due to simultaneous demand for specialist services - such as deep-cleaners.
Business leadership manuals are full of phases that exhort early action, speaking of 'first mover advantage' or 'first up, best dressed' or even the old adage of the early bird getting the worm.
In these darkest hours, just before the dawn, we need to plan for how we restart our economy. In a time of crisis, a plan to succeed is usually the secret to success.