‘Don’t panic’ about coronavirus, occupational health practitioners told

Passengers arriving at Heathrow airport from Wuhan.
Image: WILL OLIVER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A leading occupational health professional has urged practitioners to take the lead in reassuring employers and employees who may be worried about the spread of coronavirus beyond China and its epicentre of the city of Wuhan.

Dr Steve Boorman, director of employee health at consultancy Empactis and chair of the Council for Work and Health, has said that, while OH practitioners should naturally be watching developments carefully, it was important to “view it clearly” and “don’t panic”.

In a blogpost, Dr Boorman wrote: “My 30 years of occupational health practice has taken me through many previous threats including SARS, pandemic flu (more than once) and the white powder scares of anthrax contamination across the postal service.

“I have learned my lessons, and one of these has been to keep things proportionate and react with care.”

Media reporting could often end up being misleading, especially around mortality rates, and it was important employers did not overreact to employees coming into work with flu-like symptoms, he contended.

“If someone is feeling simply too ill to work, that is one thing, because presenteeism does nobody any good. But overreacting is quite another,” he emphasised.

Those feeling unwell with flu-like symptoms should be advised to use the NHS 111 helpline, see a pharmacist or, if symptoms persist, see their GP, Dr Boorman advised.

However, he added the important caveat: “If you have visited China or had contact with travellers from there then it may well be appropriate to seek advice faster – the NHS hotline is an optimal choice there too, since you can stay put while you get input.

“The overall message about the coronavirus is therefore to stay calm. Don’t panic, and don’t let lurid reporting worry you too much – either as an individual or an employer,” Dr Boorman said.

Separately, SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) has advised OH practitioners to keep up to date on official guidance around repatriation for those in affected areas as well as any restrictions for employees working overseas, about to travel or having just returned from abroad.

It has highlighted the resources available through The National Travel Health Network and Centre, Public Health England (PHE) and others.

The University of York, meanwhile, has moved to reassure staff and students, after one of the first cases of the virus in the UK was found to be a student at the university.

In a statement, it emphasised the student was not in student accommodation when they came into contact with the virus. Although they did return to their room on one occasion and stayed overnight, they did not meet other students or staff or use the communal facilities.

PHE’s risk assessment was “low” and “there is negligible risk of onward transmission of the virus”, it added.

Finally, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has highlighted a range of actions organisations can take to manage traveller health, safety and wellbeing.

This includes ensuring you have robust, and well-communicated, risk management procedures and controls in place, having conversations about whether the travel is strictly necessary, carrying out effective risk assessments, ensuring you know where workers are and where they’re going and, in turn, ensuring they are able to keep in touch with you.

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