The BRC’s been planning for a possible pandemic as long as London’s been preparing to host the 2012 Olympics.

But, if one was like the other, Seb and co would be working without knowing if the games would actually happen and, if they did, when or where they’d be and how many events and people would be involved. Not easy to get right.

But our activity with the Government over four years leaves our sector among the best prepared for any crisis.

The 2007 Winter Willow exercise, designed to test the UK’s contingency plan for such a crisis, was a successful attempt to ‘learn the lessons’ before the event rather than after.

The BRC and its members played a key part in modelling the impact of a pandemic on the supply chain and the effects for consumers on food availability and access to stores.

The plan envisaged a central role for the BRC, co-ordinating retailers’ emergency response. This year, it’s for real. With meetings, bulletins and daily conference calls, we’re the hotline connecting retail businesses and the Government.   

We’re not predicting, but we are prepared for, up to 30% staff absence.

Getting things on the shelves and sold will be the top task. So in stores, depots and head offices, there are plans in place for operating with fewer staff and prioritising the most important jobs and products.

Should there be a severe crisis we’re ready for more emphasis on basic foods, health and hygiene items and less on other non-food goods or services.

Retailers are confident they can open and run stores – even if things might be a bit more no-frills than usual – but there is room for more help from the Government.

We’re not asking for troops to drive trucks but we do want a more flexible approach to regulation and clarity on how that will be done. For example, it’s impossible to plan ahead not knowing what the Government will do about drivers’ hours or how local authorities will relax delivery curfews.

Public information should be clear and agreed. Yes, people must have the facts and healthcare they need, but that has to be balanced against generating unnecessary concern.

And we could do without the contributions coming from some quarters. Take those solicitors winding people up to think they can sue their employers if they catch flu at work, or the distribution company that told drivers: “Don’t work if you’ve been in contact with someone displaying symptoms.”

This is a time for pulling together and following a consistent policy that matches the official advice, not whipping up fears or self-serving publicity.

At this stage, it could be that we’re only on the warm-up track but, so far, it’s business as usual and consumer reaction has been reassuringly measured. We’re working to keep it that way.

  • Stephen Robertson director-general, British retail consortium