Over the last few months there have been increasing calls from members of the press and opposition MPs in the Commons demanding that the Government release the details of its analysis of the effects of a no-deal Brexit upon the country’s infrastructure and economy.
Referred to as Operation Yellowhammer, this study is not much different to the sort of planning process that businesses, or indeed individuals, will go through before embarking upon some major course of action. It might be whether to invest, buy a house, have a baby – or whatever. As with all such analysis, you have to consider the best and worst-case scenarios; you hope for the best and plan for the worst, etc. As private individuals, we tend not to formally identify this thought-process, but it is well known in business and other circles and an accepted way of approaching anything involving “risk”.
Yellowhammer is no different. Teams had to sit down and consider what might go wrong – and then examine how we, as a country, can plan to avoid each of those problems. As mentioned above, this is simple risk-analysis and mitigation at work. Others might refer to it as Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA). You list possible ways in which a system could fail, weighting each one on the basis of how likely it is happen as well as the severity of its effects, and then back-track to either reduce the likelihood of it occurring and/ or limiting the detrimental effects if it does. It really is as simple as that.
So why are we so wrapped around the axles over Yellowhammer?
Partly it must be to do with the politicking that is going on at the moment which has created an atmosphere of such complete suspicion that someone somewhere is “pulling a fast one”. It is also the inevitable result of the press and others coming out with daft comments such as: ”Yellowhammer says that a no-deal Brexit will hit the poorest in the community” etc.
Yellowhammer simply says that if we take a series of worst-case scenario, and then do nothing about it, then these could be the effects. It is impartial and objective, favouring no part of the community at the outset. One reason that it does not do so is because it would not be feasible to run the analysis in that way.
Looking at the effects of Brexit up a single section of our population would be fiendishly complex and absorb so much time and effort that the main task would go by the board. You have (by and large), to start at the top-level issues and work downwards or you will end up going around in circles.
Where effects on specific sections of the community fall out of the main analysis as a result of asking “So what” all the time, it is then reasonable to address those effects in a systematic and hierarchical manner. This might sound harsh, but we have to apportion our resources and that might mean that supplies of a drug to treat a very rare form of cancer is, initially at least, less of a priority than insulin, for example. To the cancer sufferer it will seem unjust – but as a society we have to triage such problems all the time.
So how does the potential ”insulin problem” reveal itself ? If there is a backlog of trucks getting though the port of Dover, some of which are carrying insulin, it follows that this might lead to a shortage of that medicine (amongst other things). Having identified the issue, steps can be taken to think of alternative means of transport (air?), prioritising medical transport services (trucks have a special pass to go to the head of the queue, perhaps), or to stockpile insulin ahead of time.
The expertise of those working the analysis of a failure in the transport system, for example, will of course include the ability to consider the widest range of problems that might then arise. They will then hand them over to other experts who are in a position to assess the impacts of the failure in specific cases (including shortages of medicine), who can then work on solutions – depending upon the severity of the effects of course.
However, as with all such transport-based shortages, the fundamental presumption that there could be a problem with insulin (amongst other things) is predicated upon there being a problem with the processing of vehicles at the port in the first place. The obvious solution to all such shortages would be to ensure that the trucks keep flowing – and that is where the likes of Kent County Council have been involved in forward planning to either eliminate or reduce the likelihood and extent of bottlenecks at the port of Dover. No bottlenecks = no disruption to the supply of medicines – or indeed food or any other commodity.
So why do we use the expression “need to know” in the title of this article? Because there is a presumption that everyone in the modern all-informed world is capable of understanding the big-picture, including being able to appreciate the true background to, and implications of, Yellowhammer. Put simply – that is just not the case; the “average Jo” is not equipped to do so. That means all of us – including many who might have contributed to aspects of Yellowhammer but who are not at the centre of the study-team.
If we were so equipped, we would in all probability already be on the team – for there are precious few trained to run a study of this sort. But that does not stop a reporter on the BBC, or opposition politician picking up some aspect of the report and representing it in whatever way serves their often limited purposes: ratings, votes or whatever. As the Monty Python sketch goes: “Anything you say may be taken down, distorted and used in evidence against you” (Was it Python?).
The same goes for Brexit itself. Proposals to have a second referendum will be about as useful as the first. People being asked to vote on matters of such complexity that defy the best brains in the country are suddenly supposed to capable of making considered, long term judgements about an issue that will affect this country for generations to come; does that really sound like a plan?
In reality, a typical referendum is simply a way for the supposed decision-makers to duck their collective responsibility so they can claim that they were only implementing the “decision of the country”. (Except that is precisely what they seem incapable of doing, given their track record after the first referendum.)
We are not all architects, fishermen, midwives, teachers etc. Any of those professionals would rightly be outraged if it were suggested that anyone could just walk into their jobs off the streets. The same goes for the military, for example. Do we, the Public, expect to be able to assess our deployment plans in the event of a Russian attack on the Baltic States? Clearly not – we leave it to the experts, trusting them to get it right (some of the time at least).
So let’s get this in perspective and accept that we are generally not actually in a position to critique the Yellowhammer process except at the most basic level. The main thing is that it is underway and that we can assume that, whatever the outcome of the next few weeks, we will be in a better position than if it had not been implemented.