Emergency and business continuity planning for ‘avian’ flu

United Kingdom

Most experts believe that it is not a question of whether there will be another severe influenza pandemic, but when.”
(The Government’s Chief Medical Officer, 2002)

The Government judges that one of the highest current risks to the UK is the possible emergence of an influenza pandemic - that is, the rapid worldwide spread of influenza caused by a novel virus to which people would have no immunity, resulting in more serious illness than that caused by seasonal influenza.

Key messages from the Government during a pandemic will be that people who are well should carry on with normal, essential activities as far as possible, at the same time taking personal responsibility for self-protection; and that those who are unwell, or think they are unwell should take social responsibility to lessen spread and thus help protect others.

Business continuity

One of the main concerns in any business continuity planning against an influenza pandemic will be the number of employees that may be estimated as likely to be absent from work at the peak of the pandemic.

The level of staff absence from work during a pandemic will depend significantly on the nature of the pandemic virus when it emerges. Therefore, a company’s business continuity plan should have the flexibility to accommodate these ranges.

The UK Government has advised that, as a rough working guide, organisations employing large numbers of people, with flexibility of staff redeployment, should ensure that their plans are capable of handling staff absence rates of up to 15% over the 2-3 week peak of a pandemic (in addition to usual sickness absence levels). Small businesses, or larger organisations with small critical teams, should plan for level of absence rising to 30% at peak, perhaps higher for very small businesses with only a handful of employees.

However, business continuity planners should bear in mind there may be an uneven distribution of the virus across different areas, those infected may take longer to recover and there may be ‘waves’ of a pandemic to be dealt with.

Health & safety obligations

Health and safety legislation obliges employers to provide a safe as reasonably practicable environment for staff and visitors.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to undertake suitable and sufficient risk assessments of health and safety risks to employees and other persons affected by the work activities. These should be recorded where there are more than 5 employees. Employers are also obliged to develop procedures to deal appropriately with serious and imminent danger, and to nominate sufficient numbers of competent persons to activate those procedures.

All emergency procedures have to be written down and effectively communicated to all personnel on the premises. The person who has been designated as the competent person responsible for procedures should be clearly identified and his role, responsibilities and authority detailed.

Precautionary & planning measures

Precautionary and planning measures that were considered by the Government to be widely applicable are as follows:

  • Seek to halt the spread of the virus by:

-Taking all reasonable steps to ensure that employees who are ill or think they are ill during a pandemic are positively encouraged not to come into work. Personnel policies may need to be reviewed to achieve this aim.

-Ensuring that employers and employees are made aware of Government advice on how to reduce the risk of infection during a pandemic. (It is recommended that such advice is added into businesses risk management procedures and safety policies and that these are kept regularly updated and employees informed.)

-Ensuring that adequate hygiene (e.g. hand-washing) facilities are routinely available.

  • Put in place measures to maintain core business activities for several weeks at high levels of staff absenteeism, including options for remote working and expanding self-service and on-line options for customers and business partners.
  • Identify those essential functions and posts, and perhaps individuals, whose absence would place business continuity at particular risk.
  • Identify which services could be curtailed or closed down during all, or the most intense period, of the pandemic.
  • Ensure that health and safety responsibilities to employees continue to be fully discharged - risk assessments and emergency plans need to be completed and any precautionary measures recommended or actions required should be implemented. Employees should be kept appropriately informed throughout.
  • Identify inter-dependencies between organisations and ensure they are resilient, for example by ensuring that supplier organisations delivering services under contract have appropriate arrangements in place themselves to sustain their service provision.
  • As necessary, factor into planning the need to support the health service.
  • Factor into planning the presumption that assistance from the Armed Services will not be available.
  • Factor into planning that medical counter-measures will not solve business continuity requirements because antiviral drugs for treatment will only lessen the severity of the illness. They will neither cure it nor significantly reduce sickness absence.

In addition, companies will need (as necessary) to be aware of, and plan for the consequences of measures that the Government may conclude are necessary to control or delay the spread of the disease that may result in additional staff absence from work; for instance, recommendations against travelling.

Further information

Additional planning advice is available in the Department of Health’s Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan (October 2005) - “The UK Flu Plan”, which you can view in a new window by clicking here and Cabinet Office guidance note: ‘Guidance Contingency Planning for a Possible Influenza Pandemic”, which you can view in a new window by clicking here.

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