Swine flu absence rates of up to 27% expected by employers

Employers are preparing for swine flu absence rates of up to 27% – more than double the government’s latest prediction about the number of people expected to go off sick with the virus.

Big organisations including Sainsbury’s and the BBC have put in place contingency plans to deal with an expected second wave of the virus this autumn/winter.

The supermarket giant, which employs 150,000 people, has already seen 1,675 of its workers infected by swine flu – totalling 1.2% of the workforce.

Steve Mellish, head of business continuity at Sainsbury’s, told Personnel Today the retailer was preparing for its normal absence rates to jump from 6% to 25%, due to the large number of staff who care for children within the workforce.

The government last week reiterated predictions that peak absence rates for swine flu until May 2010 could reach 12%.

But Mellish said: “The absence rate we expect is not ideal, but we are not feeling uncomfortable about that. By rehearsing [our contingency plan] it allowed us to deal with this as though it was not entirely new and surprising. Having planned for it we have been able to be responsive rather than reactive.”

Mellish said Sainsbury’s had rehearsed its business continuity plans four times since 2005, and was busy ensuring managers knew how to deal with high sickness rates on a local level. He added the retailer would consider moving staff between different stores to cover critical roles which could be threatened by swine flu absences.

“All employers should definitely rehearse their contingency plans,” he said. “We rehearsed using a desktop exercise, using the Department of Health’s alert levels to see how our plans would respond to each level.”

Meanwhile, Paul Greeves, head of safety at the BBC, told the magazine his contingency plans were based on the government’s 12% absence prediction, but he had factored in an additional 15% in case schools were closed.

He also admitted the organisation initially over-reacted to the swine flu threat to its staff, when it stockpiled thousands of doses of Tamiflu, but he insisted it was better to be over-cautious.

“We took a slightly over-cautious view at first with masks and protective suits and boots [for staff being sent to report on swine flu] but we reviewed this quickly,” he said. “But it’s better to have overreacted rather than to have under-reacted.

“The next wave of this flu in the autumn will be a challenge. I think our continuity plans are going to be tested. However, I think we will cope with that.”

To date, the BBC has seen 343 swine flu cases among its of 25,000 staff, with 28 people still off work today.

Last week, Personnel Today revealed employers had urged the government to cap the amount of sick leave an employee can self-certify if they have swine flu to 10 days. Many said 14 days, which is currently being considered, was too long.

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