Swine flu puts pressure on OH

Occupational health departments are under increasing pressure as swine flu spreads in the UK.

As Occupational Health went to press, the death toll from swine flu in the UK had risen to 29, with 53 patients in intensive care and infections at 55,000 new cases a week.

The chief medical officer for England Sir Liam Donaldson has predicted the virus could kill as many as 65,000 in the UK and the government had launched a national pandemic flu service helpline.

For occupational health departments, the key talking point has been the move by the government, revealed in Occupational Health‘s sister title Personnel Today, to consider a temporary change of self-certification sicknote rules from seven to 14 days.

The proposal has been welcomed as “pragmatic” by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, though Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at manufacturers’ body the EEF, warned employers they would need to be vigilant to ensure that some employees were not abusing the system.

Some occupational health departments, particularly NHS ones, have complained of having to deal with a flurry of directives on, for example, the need to advise vulnerable staff to contact their GP rather than OH if they need the pneumoccal vaccine.

Others have started to report of workers needing to be excluded and being asked to benchmark best exclusion advice for their management teams.

Employer health and wellbeing company AXA ICAS has urged employers to recognise the psychological impact swine flu could have on people’s work and business performance.

Parents will be concerned about their children, employees anxious about the financial and wellbeing risks of catching the virus and managers will be worried about the impact of staff needing time off sick or to care for others who are, it pointed out.

Managers needed to be holding conversations with workers about what they will do if schools shut and whether options such as working from home might be feasible.

Lastly, the think-tank Oxford Economics has predicted that a six-month swine flu pandemic could cost economy £60bn and hit the UK just as recovery starts.

As a result it could extend the recession by about two years, it added.

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