Many factors can affect the collection and delivery of mail in the UK and across the world. Throughout history, postal services have had to cope with obstacles including weather, industrial action, infection, and civil and military unrest.
International mail is particularly subject to disruption due to the distances involved and the modes of transport used. While, for example, in the event of industrial action it is usually relatively straightforward to shift inland mail from one form of transport to another i.e. rail to road, there are less options available for overseas mail. In particular, moving mail from air to sea could result in significant delays.
This is still true today. Royal Mail’s incident report for international mail shows that, at present, one of the key causes of disruption is the Ebola outbreak, which has resulted in the suspension of all mail services to and from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Libya. Delays delivering mail as the result of infection are nothing new. In the early Twentieth Century outbreaks of cholera in regions such as Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan were a cause for concern. Questions were raised as to whether mail from these regions should be disinfected. Though not thought necessary as ‘cholera germs have a very short life… even air mail sufficient to avoid danger of infection’ (POST 122/3523). Despite this, in some cases mail was disinfected or quarantined to meet the concerns of local health boards and to avoid the Post Office being considered a scapegoat should an outbreak occur in a previously unaffected area.
War and civil unrest are currently causing disruption to mail services in Syria, and Crimea and Sevastopol in the Ukraine. Military conflict has historically had an impact on international postal services, even in cases where Britain is not directly involved. For example the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan in 1965 disrupted mail to and from these countries. India refused access to its airspace to planes which had taken off from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Ships were also rerouted, but in many cases it was difficult to identify and separate mails for India and Pakistan and to establish independent postal services.
-Helen Dafter, Archivist