As you will no doubt be aware, swine flu has come to the UK. There have now been 65 confirmed cases of swine flu in the UK and a further 336 cases are under investigation. The World Health Organisation (‘WHO’) has reported that 30 countries are affected worldwide, with 4694 confirmed cases of swine flu and 53 confirmed deaths (48 in Mexico, 3 in US, 1 in Canada, 1 in Costa Rica). The WHO is closely monitoring the spread of swine flu, however, a pandemic has not as yet been confirmed. However, businesses always need to prepare themselves in the event of such an epidemic, or indeed other unexpected events.  

Businesses should be prepared for all sorts of situations such as natural disasters, fuel shortages or terrorist attacks. For example, when we have freak weather conditions, public transport can be disrupted, roads closed and property damaged. It may be necessary in some circumstances to allow employees to leave early and take work home.  

Is your business prepared for such situations? What plans are in place to ensure the business carries on? Are employees and managers aware of the correct procedures to follow?  

Past experience has shown us that those businesses that have continuity arrangements in place are more likely to stay in business and recover quickly in the event of an emergency than those that do not.  

Effect on your business  

It is always advisable to expect the unexpected and to put plans in place, whether for a flu epidemic, a terrorist attack or freak weather. The Government is advising businesses to ensure they have an up-to-date contingency plan.  

In relation to a flu epidemic the effect on businesses could be extensive, for example:  

  • Employees could be ill.
  • Employees may need to care for family members.
  • Schools, nurseries and care homes may be closed leading to employees being absent from work whilst caring for children and elderly relatives.  

Not only will employees of the business be affected but the following may also cause an impact:  

  • Public transport systems could be unreliable or closed.
  • Suppliers and the postal delivery system could be unreliable. If suppliers do not have contingency plans in place this can have a massive effect on businesses.
  • Customers/clients may also be affected leading to a downturn in turnover.
  • Shops may not be stocked due to inconsistent deliveries, possibly leading to food shortages.
  • It may be unsafe to travel to certain countries.

Business Continuity Planning  

As part of risk management contingency planning should be an integral part of any business. Although all managers should consider such planning to be part of their normal responsibilities, it is sensible to consider appointing an overall business continuity manager.  

Advice can be found at the business link website - Crisis management and business continuity planning. It is essential to have a thorough understanding of the business and to prioritise key areas of the business in the event of an emergency.  

Communication is essential to the success of any contingency plan and so employers should endeavour to keep employees well informed. Consideration should be given to allowing employees to work from home or to leave early in the event of an emergency, however this will not always be practical.  

There are five key elements to business continuity planning:  

  1. Identify the key functions of the business.
  2. Select a strategy in order to mitigate loss.  
  3. Develop the response by improving operational procedures and practices and select a team to develop the plan.
  4. Establish the continuity culture – communicate to employees.
  5. Exercise and maintain the plan.  

As always prevention is better than a cure and so minimise the impact of such risks by taking steps to protect your business against them. Some top tips when considering your employees would be as follows:

  • Try to ensure you are not too dependent on a few key staff. Encourage key skills to be passed on to others through training.
  • Consider whether you would be able to take on temporary workers to cover illness of key staff.
  • Take health and safety seriously to reduce the risk of illnesses. When considering a flu epidemic it is important to encourage hand washing, use of tissues and appropriate disposal of tissues.
  • Consider putting facilities in place to allow people to be able to work from home. Ensure IT systems are capable of functioning if all employees had to work from home.
  • Consider the possible impact on the contract of employment if ‘normal’ working practices were suspended.
  • Review sickness absence and dependant leave policies. For example, an employee with swine flu should not return to work until certified fit by a doctor.
  • Consider whether risk assessments are appropriate. Particularly if the business is vulnerable (for example, high levels of travel abroad).  

In conclusion  

Although there is a risk of a pandemic we should take comfort from the WHO’s endorsement that the UK is one of the most ‘prepared countries in the world’. It is sensible to be prepared and to get continuity plans in place to ensure you are in the best possible position, however causing widespread panic across your staff is not advisable. Employees should be well informed of the symptoms to look out for and a clear plan in place should anyone be infected.