Avian flu and business continuity

Cases of humans infected with avian flu have been identified across the world, but in most cases, those affected work with birds on a daily basis. If the strain of flu mutates and becomes transferable between humans, there could be an outbreak capable of spreading across the world.

Although this scenario is currently only hypothetical, there are conferences in all business sectors devoted to avian flu and numerous guidelines have been published on the issue. However, none of these seem to offer anything new.

Impact on business

Published UK statistics estimate that if an outbreak of avian flu occurs, there will be at worst a 25 per cent infection rate in each area impacted. The infection will then spread across the country, affecting each person who contracts it for about eight days. As such, in a family of four, if one falls ill on day one, the next on day two and so on, the last will recover on day 12. So we could expect every member of such a family to be away from work for 50 per cent longer than the expected infection time.

But if 25 per cent of a company's staff are infected and a further 25 per cent refuse to come to work, the business could be forced to operate with only half of its workforce. Due to the current terrorist threat, many medium-sized and large businesses have developed a strategy that would enable them to work with as little as 20 per cent of their usual staff.

The potential impact of an outbreak on businesses would also depend on the media reaction. Inflammatory headlines could encourage more people to stay home from work, while a calm reaction could see lower levels of absenteeism.

But even with 50 per cent of their staff unable to work, most businesses would be able to cope. Although an avian flu outbreak would be likely to affect large areas of the country, for businesses, it is already within scope of existing contingency plans.

Wider implications

If an outbreak occurred and people decided to avoid public places and shops as a result, another set of issues would need to be considered, in this case by government authorities. Supplies of heating fuel, food and water would have to be secured for housebound people.

Following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the US stopped the entire financial sector for four days. This precedent has demonstrated that the financial sector can be stopped with an acceptable level of damage. In the UK, companies across the nation come almost to a standstill with minimal impact on public holidays, for example. However, these events are known ahead of time.

In the event of an avian flu outbreak, businesses would, to some extent, be able to plan it into their operations. For example:

  • If it were proven that the disease could be passed from human to human, businesses should assume that work would stop or be adversely affected and plan operations with this in mind.
  • Food retailers should plan for a rush on goods as people begin to stockpile supplies.
  • Retail banks should plan for a rush on ATM withdrawals as people hoard cash.
  • Assuming that people would not want to leave their homes, a sharp increase in demand for internet services could be expected.
  • Food retailers offering internet shopping and home delivery should expect an increase in demand.
  • Call centre operators would not want to work together. Companies should plan to implement telephony systems that would allow operators to work from home.
  • Although these solutions are simple and require only basic planning, they would help in a potential crisis. In many ways, avian flu is similar to the Millennium Bug. It could impact everyone across the world, or it could never arrive in the way foreseen.

    If an outbreak occurs, companies will also need to protect their staff. Some are buying what they think are vaccines, but, in fact, there is not yet a vaccine for the virus. Even if a company could protect its employees in this way, their families would still be at risk. It is unlikely that people would be willing to leave infected relatives at home just to come to work.

    In reality, there is little companies can do beyond what they do for any other type of risk. They should know their priorities and be aware of which key staff or alternate areas can deliver critical operations if an area is lost. Hand-washing and wearing masks have been offered as possible solutions, but there is uncertainty as to whether companies or the government would be able to enforce such practices.

    If a true pandemic were to occur and lead to the mortality rates suggested for the UK - approximately 400,000 more deaths than are recorded in a typical winter - how will this impact UK policy? What do planners need to know to help them make decisions? First, unsavoury as it may sound, the UK's major funeral companies could not cope with this number of deaths. Therefore, at a time of heightened emotions, it is possible that the press might run photographs of bodies awaiting burial.

    Impact analysis

    By examining each key function necessary to sustain the nation, it is possible to assess the country's needs and establish priorities. Only then is it possible to understand what must be in place to protect the nation's needs and avoid basing strategies on assumptions.

    In most cases, companies have made plans to ensure their operations continue so that stakeholders, share value and profitability are protected. But they have not considered the wider implications that could result from many companies being impacted at the same time. This is an issue business continuity needs to address.

    The nation's basic infrastructure must be in place if businesses are to function. Power, food and water must be delivered to where they are needed. To allow supplies to be delivered and employees to get to work, the roads must be open and transport must be functional. Hospitals, schools and other key support functions must be in place. These layers must be in place to allow the nation to function. Priorities need to be established with central guidance, and this needs to be done immediately. The key details need to be made clear to the businesses so they can understand how their plans dovetail with national priorities.

    What should we do?

    Plans must assume that employees will be away from work for much longer than has been previously estimated. It is unlikely that people will go to work if their children or loved ones are infected.

    Human resources policies should allow extended sick leave for people who are not sick but are supporting sick family members. Employers should consider whether they will want employees who are living in an infected household but not showing symptoms to come to work.

    Companies should work with staff members to develop an internal strategy that addresses the following issues:

  • How will the company respond if staff members do not attend work because their family members ask them not to?
  • How will the company respond if staff members do not want to use public transport?
  • How will the company respond if staff members do not want to be in public environments, such as offices?
  • How will the company respond if schools are closed due to the crisis and family members have to remain at home?
  • Approaches such as training employees across a number of areas and developing solutions that would allow them to work from home must be reviewed and implemented where necessary.

    If an avian flu pandemic occurs, it could have huge implications for companies. There is very little that individual businesses can do at an operational level that is not included in existing strategies. Central guidance and national understanding are crucial.

    Tim Armit, of Clifton Risk Management, is one of Europe's leading experts on business continuity and has implemented strategies in every business sector across the world.

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