A flu pandemic is no longer a case of if, but when. Sally O’Reilly argues that attitudes need to change – and fast.
The world is full of risk – and the media is full of scare-stories. So HR departments might be forgiven for giving pandemic flu planning a low priority. Even the government is encouraging a laissez-faire approach to the latest scare, with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) leaving it up to organisations to make their own decisions about contingency planning.
But is this enough? Those who rely on their existing disaster recovery plans could be in for a nasty shock – once employees have been diagnosed with flu in a pandemic, it will be too late to work out what to do.
Experts disagree about how to tackle a flu pandemic, and how severe its effects might be. But they do agree that the next one is overdue, and it is a matter of when, not whether it will strike.
Pandemics of the past
Companies should not underestimate the impact of a flu pandemic. There were three in the 20th century. Up to a quarter of the UK population became ill each time, thousands died and the resulting social and economic disruption was huge. During the 1918 outbreak, 250,000 people died in the UK, and 40 million worldwide.
A pandemic occurs when a new strain of flu emerges to which people have not developed immunity. The current threat is ‘bird flu’. Last week, three young siblings were reported to have died in Turkey from the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus.
If avian flu mutates into a virus that can easily transmit from human to human, the resulting flu would sweep across the world. The first wave of a pandemic is likely to last for three to five months; subsequent waves may be weeks or months apart.
So what can organisations do? Forward planning can help, no matter how unpredictable a pandemic might be. Most disaster recovery programmes focus on dealing with a short, sharp shock, such as a terrorist attack, but flu plans need to take account of changed ways of working that may last for months.
Guidance for businesses
Getting advice is not easy though. Some industries have received more guidance than others. The energy sector already has contingency plans in place for disruptions to supply, and the Energy Emergencies Executive is discussing flu preparedness with the DTI. Other groups are less advanced: the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has discussed the issue with business recovery planning company Survive but offers no specific guidelines yet.
“Planning for business is at an early stage,” says Lorraine Lane, chief executive of Survive. “There is plenty of advice out there for the general public, but not much in-depth advice for business. This is something the government has overlooked completely.”
Survive launched a research project in December 2005 designed to address the issue of business continuity during a flu pandemic. The research found that businesses worldwide are failing to create contingency plans for the crisis a global flu outbreak might cause.
Staff training will be essential both for regular employees and any new staff who need to be drafted in. Equally important, workplace etiquette will need to change.
Flu is usually transmitted by coughs and sneezes, so a colleague who doesn’t use a handkerchief could be spreading a potentially fatal disease. Workers should not need to wear the type of surgical masks used during the Sars outbreak of 2003, but consistent hygiene is essential. As door handles and taps are another common breeding ground for infection, expect to enforce the mandatory use of antiseptic wipes to keep all common work areas germ-free. In the meantime, the advice is don’t panic – plan ahead.
The main source of government information is the Department of Health (DoH) publication Pandemic Flu: UK Influenza Contingency Plan. Its advice is to:
- Consider the implications of staff absence at a time when the workload for some may be increased.
- Establish minimum staffing levels.
- Identify a ‘front-line’ group of essential employees.
- Look at ways of redeploying staff to do jobs they may not be trained to do or are not familiar with, or to recruit additional staff or volunteers.
- Set up systems for vetting additional staff, including volunteers.
- Look at overnight accommodation – for example, portable accommodation for people to rest between shifts when transport may be difficult or disrupted.
- Make sure staff rosters allow for adequate break and leave periods to ensure a sustainable response over several weeks.
The DoH also stresses the need for adequate staff training for both regular staff and staff drafted in or redeployed. Key issues include:
- Make sure staff training is tailored to the unusual working conditions.
- Plan and organise training for volunteers.
- Teach staff how to handle and work with volunteers.
- Keep a database of former or recently retired clinical staff or local doctors who may be called upon to help.
- Include the need for surge capacity – the ability to meet increased demand – in regular planning.
- Plan for counselling or other forms of help for staff who may need psychological support during what will be a difficult time at work and at home.
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is the spread of a disease over a wide geographical area, with outbreaks or epidemics occurring in many countries and in most regions of the world.
Influenza (flu) pandemics have swept the globe from time to time throughout history with devastating effect, far in excess of that resulting from the ‘seasonal’ influenza which (in the UK) occurs most winters.
Three pandemics occurred in the last century – in 1918-19 (‘Spanish’ flu), 1957-58 (‘Asian’ flu) and 1968-69 (‘Hong Kong’ flu). Up to a quarter of the UK population became ill each time, many thousands of people died and the associated economic and social disruption was huge. The most severe – the 1918-19 outbreak – is estimated to have killed about 250,000 people in the UK and between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide – a greater toll than the whole of the First World War.
Source: UK Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan, March 2005