How emergency planning has kept lights on and taps running

Last week, Spain’s largest energy company Iberdrola finalised a spreadsheet of more than 20 pages that is intended to prevent catastrophe and keep the lights on as coronavirus tests the country’s infrastructure. The document, dispatched to the government, lists Iberdrola’s critical infrastructure in Spain: generators, substations, distribution networks and more. It provides a list of the personnel at each facility — and also what the minimum staffing level is at each location. Such information is crucial for the Spanish government, which has taken on the responsibility of guaranteeing the supply of energy during the coronavirus crisis, assuming vast new temporary powers. The Spanish army is also guarding nuclear power stations as well as carrying out a range of other tasks, such as disinfecting airports, train stations and hospitals.Iberdrola and the government itself, like authorities elsewhere in Europe and beyond, say that such protocols are part of emergency measures that will guarantee vital infrastructure despite lockdowns and the possible ravages of coronavirus itself on essential staff.Across Europe and North America, as governments promise billions and mobilise armies to help maintain an economy that is shutting down and a medical system at risk of being overwhelmed, infrastructure providers are being asked to step up.In Italy, the European country hardest hit by the virus, industry has suffered severe disruptions, according to Confindustria, a trade body. Coronavirus business update How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.Sign up hereOn Saturday, the government shut all non-essential businesses — going further than Spain or France so far — but even before that, in regions such as Lombardy, in the north of Italy and the centre of the outbreak, less than 50 per cent of industry was still operating. However, essential services such as power, water and waste are still operating normally.In France, which went into lockdown on Tuesday, finance minister Bruno Le Maire called upon workers in “essential sectors” such as waste, food supply and distribution to “go to their places of work” in order to guarantee “economic security”.“I invite all employees of companies that are still operational, activities that are essential for the functioning of the country, to go to their workplaces . . . in conditions of maximum health and safety,” said Mr Le Maire on Wednesday. Under French law, workers have the right to withdraw their labour if they think their health is at risk. But Mr Le Maire has underlined that there must be a “serious and imminent danger”.Not all workers have been able to keep showing up as coronavirus has spread but utility companies critical to society have responded with long-held plans to guarantee services, which they say can see them through the crisis, even if it lasts for months. Groups across sectors are putting together crisis plans for the government, splitting their teams to limit infections, moving some staff to off-site bases, providing beefed-up safety equipment and cutting back on non-essential maintenance and repairs. In the north of France, at the idle Flamanville nuclear plant, government-backed EDF was forced last week to put in place the more extreme version of its “pandemic plan” after coronavirus cases spiked in the area around the site.That pandemic protocol, in place for the whole group, means staff are separated and in extreme cases cut back sharply in order to maintain essential work but limit the risk of infection. In Flamanville, the number of workers was cut to 100 from 800. You can’t ask someone who is maintaining vital infrastructure to do it from home, because that is not possible José Ángel Marra, Iberdrola’s HR director It is a scenario that could soon play out elsewhere. In Germany, energy giants RWE and EON also have longstanding pandemic plans.And in the US, the nuclear lobby said “everyone has activated their pandemic plans,” which have been maintained since 2006, while other industries call for “essential status” to avoid being shut by government and allow their employees to continue to travel.Iberdrola has provided similar documentation to the file it sent the Spanish government in other countries where it is active: the UK, where it owns Scottish Power, the US, Mexico and Brazil.In such cases, the purpose is to co-ordinate with governments to ensure there is enough staff to keep vital infrastructure working even where the coronavirus is spreading fast and a countrywide lockdown is in force.“In each of these countries, we are essential for one purpose or another,” said José Ángel Marra, Iberdrola’s director of human resources, referring to the company’s worldwide mix of electricity generation and distribution assets.Mr Marra emphasises that while 75 per cent of the staff in the company’s administrative offices are teleworking, that is not an option for workers in the field.“You can’t ask someone who is maintaining vital infrastructure to do it from home, because that is not possible,” he said. “So we have to protect our people from contagion while guaranteeing that we are going to maintain our service in the areas where we have to.”So far, Iberdrola has not suffered significant absences because of coronavirus. Neither, except in Flamanville, has EDF with both companies expressing confidence they can maintain acceptable services throughout the epidemic — French demand for power has so far fallen 15 per cent and Spanish by 7-10 per cent as economic activity has suffered. Suez, the French water and waste utility, which has implemented its own emergency plan, says it can “ensure key operations even if its workforce is reduced by 40 per cent”.French unions, often at loggerheads with management, seem to be mostly on board: “We are in a public service and most of the workers here know that and accept that responsibility,” said Laurent Heredia, a representative for the left-leaning trade union CGT in EDF. At Veolia, another big water and waste utility in France, Anne LeGuennec, who manages waste and recycling in France, said: “Yes, employees can stop working if they fear for their safety, but we aren’t seeing much of that yet.” She says about 10 per cent of workers are currently absent and that the company could also continue to provide a service even if that rate dropped to 40 per cent. The group has, however, asked the government for more medical masks to protect increasingly worried employees.In Paris last Monday, as night fell on empty streets ahead of the city’s shut down, Alain Bernard, a 42-year-old garbage collector, said he was concentrating on his job rather than worrying about getting sick.“You can’t let yourself get too much into your own head,” he said. “And if I stopped working, Paris would become a rubbish dump.”Additional reporting by Joe Miller in Frankfurt, Gregory Meyer in New York and Davide Ghiglione in RomeRead more about the impact of coronavirusThe latest figures as the outbreak spreadsContaining coronavirus: lessons from AsiaHow dangerous is the coronavirus and how does it spread?Subscribers can use myFT to follow the latest ‘coronavirus’ coverage