Although the World Health Organisation currently puts the level of threat posed by swine flu at level 5 (meaning that a pandemic is considered to be imminent), so far the actual threat in the UK to human life or the economy has been negligible. Remind you of the SARS and bird flu scares a few years ago? Below is a recap on the essential preparations for and response to a pandemic.

Business continuity

Businesses need to consider how they would deal with the disruption of a key supplier or client caused by an outbreak. Existing plans should be updated or tailored to cover the current threat and plans should be drawn up if none exist. The Cabinet Office and Business Link both publish useful guidance on business continuity planning.

Staff health

  Employers should monitor and implement current guidance on risk reduction in the workplace. The NHS has published guidance on pandemic flu and the measures that should be taken to reduce the spread of the virus at work. At this stage the emphasis should be on prevention, to reduce the spread of the virus. Employees should be given a copy of the official leaflet on swine flu and made aware of the key prevention message, "catch it, kill it, bin it". Staff should also be advised to stay at home if they are sick with flu-like symptoms.

In the longer term, employers need to consider steps they may need to take if the threat escalates and how that might impact on their policies and procedures. Employers should:

  • carry out a risk assessment (see the NHS guidance for an example matrix) and consider the measures that will be necessary depending on the type of operation and the amount of interaction with the public;
  • stay up to date with and follow advice and guidance from the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive;
  • plan arrangements for home-working and increasing the use of video-links and telephone conferencing, should this become necessary;
  • have plans in place for operating with skeleton staff, identifying key staff;
  • review relevant policies, such as those dealing with sickness, absence and time off for dependents and consider whether they need to be modified for the current circumstances;
  • monitor travel and health restrictions, consider alternative means of establishing business contact in areas where the disease is active and review their travel policy;
  • communicate clearly with staff about health risks and what is expected of them and ensure that staff are fully informed of the actions the business is taking and any changes to policies and procedures.