Sickness absence rates across the country could more than double if the UK is hit by a bird flu pandemic, the Department of Health (DoH) has warned.
In its contingency plan in the event of a pandemic, published last month, the DoH estimated absenteeism would peak at 3.5% of the workforce in week 14 of an outbreak.
“This would double the normal average absenteeism in a private sector company and equate to a two-thirds increase in the public sector,” it warned.
In previous pandemics, up to 10% or more of the population have lost working days.
Plans are based on about 25% of workers taking time off, maybe five to eight working days over a three-month period.
“Absenteeism may, however, be greater because of workers’ need to care for others, and difficulties – or fear – of travelling to work,” the DoH added.
The assumption is that healthcare workers, in the absence of vaccination, will suffer much higher than normal absence rates.
In Liverpool in the pandemic of 1957, between 12% and 19% of nurses were absent during the first four weeks, with one hospital losing nearly a third of its staff.
The Government has bought 14.6 million courses of anti-viral drug oseltamivir to reduce the impact of the disease.
Bird flu has so far killed at least 47 people in South East Asia and there are suspected cases of the virus being passed between humans.
The World Health Organisation has warned it could kill 100 million people worldwide if it turns into a pandemic.