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No longer ‘the hidden profession’: how Covid-19 made us appreciate supply chains

Empty supermarket shelves. Rationing of toilet paper. PPE shortages. Vaccine distribution delays. Along with images of over-stretched intensive care units, these events dominated the headlines in 2020. The global pandemic shone the spotlight on supply chain management and logistics and forced us all to think about where our products come from and how many people were involved in bringing them to us. We spoke to three experts in the industry about their experiences in the last 12 months.

Written by Allie Fitzgibbon |

Men walking through a warehouse
"The pandemic has created a whole range of new challenges ... and you have to be open-minded to work around those issues. Being flexible is vital."

Tom Bonsall has worked for British supermarket giant, Tesco, for more than 12 years. In March 2020 he was working as a Distribution Centre Manager for ambient food and witnessed first-hand the effects of wide-spread hoarding.

He said: “’Intense’ is probably the best way to describe it. Almost out of nowhere sales erupted. It was long hours and hard work. But it was actually one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had so far in my career, because it was all the things I love most about this industry – it was fast-paced, we were thinking on our feet and constantly trying to think of how we could do things differently.

“We’re only one small part in a very big machine – from the raw material suppliers right through to the product getting physically on to the shelf. So we just had to focus on what we could control: how can I maximise what can go through the centre on a day-to-day basis and how can I make sure I’m able to plan and deliver what I’m being asked for.”

However, managing unprecedented demand from consumers was only one of the challenges Tom faced. He also had to ensure the safety of colleagues at a highly uncertain time.

“It was an ever-changing set of goalposts; if you compare when it first started in March last year to what the distribution centres look like now it’s a completely different picture. We wanted to make sure we were leading the way on new developments to be as Covid-secure as possible, supporting our colleagues through a very uncertain and worrying time whilst having strong plans in place to cover absences due to shielding and self-isolating.”

Never before in history has the whole world been asking to buy the same things at the same time; from PPE to lab equipment, it’s been really hard to get hold of things and then even harder to transport them.

David Quinn is Director of Humanitarian Programmes for Crown Agents, a not-for-profit international development company. His 10 year career with them has included roles embedded in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), managing the logistics of the British humanitarian response to overseas crises, including the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

In 2020 his role was to work with the FCDO to deliver supply chain and human resource support to UK Overseas Territories during the pandemic.

“UK Overseas Territories are some of the remotest places on the planet. They’re challenging to get to normally and then you add in quarantines and border closures – they may as well be on the moon. It’s logistically very challenging. Added to that has been the issue of procurement. Never before in history has the whole world been asking to buy the same things at the same time; from PPE to lab equipment, it’s been really hard to get hold of things and then even harder to transport them.”

David’s no stranger to overcoming adversity. During the international Ebola response in Sierra Leone all flights were grounded because of the disease, so David and his team set up their own airline, with a flight every 48 hours. However, the pandemic has thrown up a number of new obstacles – even for him.

David continued: “The UK was among the first countries to authorise the use of vaccines so we were one of the first to try and move them and that’s presented a whole new challenge: how do you transport something that has to be stored at minus 70 to these remote locations? Safe to say it’s not been boring – it’s a very exciting and fulfilling job.”

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about this industry is that it’s dull and mundane. It’s a really varied career because logistics cuts across every single industry.

Mike Edwards has had a varied career in logistics, with roles at global brewer, Molson Coors, and SIG plc. He is now Business Development Manager for Potteries Heavy Haulage Ltd, a specialist abnormal load and heavy haulage transportation company.

Mike said: “One of our clients is Airbus. Their wing parts are shipped to Southampton and they then need to be transported to the factory in Broughton. As you can imagine, these parts are all oversized and you need to get individual local authority and police approval from every region you transport them through. But we found that different police forces were interpreting government guidance differently so while some approved it, others stopped it.

“We were also involved in transporting the modular buildings that were used in the construction of the Nightingale hospitals (hospitals set up specifically to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic). Initially we had resistance from the authorities to allow the movements due to the Covid-19 restrictions, everything was up in the air.”

Mike believes one of the most important qualities you need for success in supply chain and logistics is flexibility.

He said: “I think one of the biggest misconceptions about this industry is that it’s dull and mundane. It’s a really varied career because logistics cuts across every single industry. The pandemic has created a whole range of new challenges I’ve never faced before and you have to be open-minded to work around those issues. Being flexible is vital.”

Find out how you can take the next step in your career with the University of London’s MSc in Supply Chain Management and Global Logistics, developed with Member Institute, City University of London.