Businesses must counter coronavirus misinformation

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Business resilience experts and scientists have urged organisations to respond pragmatically to the Covid-19 outbreak and counter misinformation spreading about the virus on social media, which could harm business operations.

Delegates at a timely London conference on pandemic planning heard that misinformation travelled three times faster than accurate information thanks in part to social media and that the onus was on companies to be proactive and communicate the latest scientific advise to staff.

“Perception is as much as a problem as the actual virus,” said Richard Stephenson, chief executive of crisis and continuity technology firm Sentinel, who said companies should dismiss any fear of explaining and discussing the virus with staff on the grounds that it may scare them. HR and occupational health staff, he said, must “step up” and communicate: if they it didn’t, people would be more likely to go to unreliable sources of information and could make poor decisions.

This point was underlined by Dr Anthony Renshaw, International SOS medical director Northern Europe. He shared the view that the Covid-19 virus was the world’s first true “social infodemic”, citing a tweet from The Sun which used a completely unrelated air traffic graphic to illustrate the spread of the condition. Facebook was another source of misinformation with tens of thousands of shared posts advising people to “keep your throat moist”, “load up on vitamin C” and “avoid spicy food”.

The tendency for media to induce a sense of panic was also touched on by business resilience expert James Lythe, associate director of Control Risks, who likened the public response to a “panic and reassure seesaw”. He warned there was a tendency among many people to assume the opposite to what the authorities were telling them.

Planning was the best way for companies to overcome business issues caused by the virus, said Lythe, adding “All crises are made up of predictable elements – Covid-19 is simply shining a spotlight on business continuity. Don’t worry about coronavirus, worry that you don’t have a plan.”

Dr Renshaw told the audience “let’s be pragmatic, this is not 1918 all over again”. However, there was an issue around which health bodies’ advice to take on board. Global organisations faced the problem of different advice being issued in different countries suggesting that UK businesses with offices abroad must make a decision whether to stick to Public Health England guidance or go for a global protocol. He noted that, for example, safe social distances in areas where Covid-19 had been recorded was given as one metre by the World Health Organization but was two metres according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

He advised companies not to send people home to work unless there was a specific reason to do so in terms of the proximity of cases – and to maintain agile, flexible plans based on business impact. Whole buildings should not be shut down because of one case in another office, he said, echoing developments in Canary Wharf where HSBC yesterday shut a floor of its office tower and sent home 100 staff after one person tested positively for Covid-19.

Let’s be pragmatic, this is not 1918 all over again” – Dr Anthony Renshaw

Other floors remained open, based on medical and official advice, HSBC said. US group S&P Global Platts has taken a different approach, however, having sent home 1,200 staff members after a visitor to its Canary Wharf site was said to have been diagnosed with the virus.

Lewis Silkin barrister Vince Toman reminded delegates that employers have a duty of care not only to their own employees but as occupiers of premises, which should inform companies’ actions that share premises with other firms. He also pointed out that employees who don’t co-operate and who recklessly risk their own health could be disciplined. Likewise, those who refused to work, deciding to remain at home for not good reason could face action.

In terms of questions about when it was safe to return to work for those who had caught the virus, Dr Renshaw said the answer was dependent on local conditions and protocols. In China, for example, this was 14 days after hospital discharge and two negative tests.

All crises are made up of predictable elements – Covid-19 is simply shining a spotlight on business continuity” – James Lythe

Leading virologist Professor John Oxford, University of London, praised China’s response to the spread of the virus and the quality of their medical and scientific work. He lambasted UK prime minister Boris Johnson for shaking hands with people on a hospital visit and warned that cultures where collective action was understood, such as Singapore, South Korea and China, were far more suited to containing and eliminating the disease than the more individualistic approach of the US and some countries in western Europe.

Interestingly, he told delegates that flying was safer in some aspects that travelling to an airport in a taxi, because the air filters used on modern aircraft prevented the dispersal of the virus.

Adam McCulloch attended the Business Forums International conference 21st Pandemic Planning for Employers: Coronavirus Focus.

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