Swine flu: Staff to be allowed two weeks off with no sick note

Employees will be allowed to authorise their own sick leave for as much as two weeks if government proposals to contain the swine flu pandemic go ahead, Personnel Today has exclusively revealed.

Noel O’Reily, editor of Personnel Today’s sister title Occupational Health discusses whether an extension to sickness self-certification during the swine flu pandemic is the best thing to do.

The Department of Health (DoH) is “actively considering” doubling the amount of time staff sign themselves off sick from work from seven to 14 days so the employees do not need to get a doctor’s note.

But employers’ groups have warned employees could “abuse” the system and see the changes as a ‘freedom pass’ to taking two weeks off work with relatively little consequences. Particularly as typical flu cases last about seven days, according to experts.

The proposals are being considered by government departments, including the DoH. If they are put in place, they are likely to be in force for a six-month period only.

But employers are unlikely to be consulted on the changes because they will come in as an emergency measure, an industry insider has revealed. Nor will the changes require a new law, so could be implemented immediately.

A DoH spokesman said the proposals were “actively being considered”.

“We are in a treatment phase [with swine flu]. It’s not so widespread that it has reached that point where so many people are off work that it’s needed. We don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he told Personnel Today.

He dismissed the claim that employers would not be consulted on the new measures, adding that they had already been involved as part of the “pandemic preparedness” in the run up to the guidance being agreed on. “It’s not something that will just be thrust on employers,” the spokesman said.

But an industry source in regular contact with the government told Personnel Today: “As this will be an emergency measure, designed to free up medical resources and reduce the spread of swine flu in GP surgeries, there will be no advance consultation with employers before implementation.”

Employers’ groups admitted that short-term measures to contain swine flu were likely to be necessary.

Neil Carberry, head of employment policy at the CBI, said: “The CBI have had a number of discussions with the Department of Health about this and other issues. It’s clear that we don’t know what the scale of the peak of pandemic flu that we expect in third and fourth quarter of this will be. If it is very significant, it’s likely that temporary measures will have to be taken, and short-term changes like this are among the options.”

He added: “Employers need to be thinking through their business resilience plans in the face of threat of pandemic. The impact of a pandemic outbreak is going to be the significant threat to employers… not necessarily some of the temporary measures.”

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But Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at manufacturers body the EEF, warned some employees could abuse the system. “Let’s be realistic here, some employees will abuse this. At worse, they’ll be off for 14 days without justification. There is no reason why people shouldn’t come back within the 14 days once they feel fit and well after they finish the course of treatment.”

Noel O’Reilly, editor of Personnel Today‘s sister title Occupational Health, warned it seemed “excessive” to allow employees 14 days off work for flu cases, which typically last less time.

“Fourteen days seems excessive considering the length of time for flu symptoms is usually considerably less. We have to consider whether this will encourage employees to take extra days’ sick leave,” he said. There is also the added complication of quarantine periods, so as well as staff taking two weeks off, they could take an extra five days for that reason.”

So far 7,447 UK cases of swine flu have been confirmed since April 2009, according to the latest DoH figures. However, the newest cases are no longer being measured.

Earlier this year, Personnel Today learned a swine flu outbreak in the UK could cost employers £1.5bn a day, with up to a quarter of the country’s workforce potentially going off sick.