Dealing with a pandemic

  • A pandemic can strike at any time and its severity is impossible to predict, but public sector organisations should ensure business continuity planning measures are in place to cope with any outbreak
  • Pandemics can disrupt essential public services and result in large numbers of staff being absent from work at any one time
  • The last pandemic to hit the UK was the 2009 swine flu outbreak

The 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, with no known cure and a high fatality rate, has brought into sharp focus the UK public sector’s vulnerability in dealing with possible disaster. In its latest New World of Risk report, Zurich Municipal places a pandemic as a top 10 risk for local governments, though the report shows it doesn’t appear to be an issue senior managers are addressing. 

Thankfully, though, the current Ebola epidemic is unlikely to mutate into a pandemic and become the next Black Death or Spanish flu of 1918 – both events that killed many millions of people.

But despite recent budget and personnel cuts, public sector organisations still need to ensure business continuity planning measures are developed and resilient enough to deal with the devastating impact of a pandemic, which could result in disruption to essential services, low productivity levels, shortages, distribution difficulties and large numbers of staff absent from work at any one time.

The last pandemic to hit the UK was the 2009 swine flu outbreak, which thankfully proved less lethal than first feared. However, the UK government has warned that this 2009 pandemic “does not lessen the probability of a further pandemic in the near future, and should not be seen as representative of future pandemics”, especially when globalisation is increasing the interconnectedness of people and countries.

Early stages of a pandemic

Panic though, can unnecessarily set in at the first reports of an outbreak and it’s important for public sector organisations to keep informed of the threat level via the UK government’s Public Health England site and not rely on possible speculation in the media. Travel to areas of the initial outbreak must also be reviewed.

Prevention and control

Social contact between people usually assists in the spread of a pandemic, so prevention and basic control measures, such as good hygiene, should be implemented to keep a healthy workforce.

Absence and illness policies may also need to be amended during a pandemic – as well as promoting an environment in which staff who become unwell feel that they can go home and stay at home until they are well – as self-isolation by affected individuals is central to containing the spread of a virus, such as influenza.

Other measures an organisation can undertake include the effective use of social distancing – of around one metre – within the workplace, staggering breaks to reduce crowding in canteens and common rooms and also the use of alternative communication methods, such as telephone and video conferencing, to reduce unnecessary staff travel between locations.

HR policies may also need updating to reflect the impact of a pandemic and be sensitive to staff needs during times of caring for family members or even bereavement.

Maintaining essential operations

For public sector organisations, it is important that regular risk assessments are carried out to understand and predict the likely impact a pandemic may have. Many scenarios should be considered, but it is imperative to ascertain which parts of an organisation are essential and the core people and skills that are required to keep it running in times of crisis.

Back-up plans should be in place in terms of recruiting temporary staff, and also in dealing with the failure of a supplier of goods or services, or delayed deliveries.

The introduction of flexible working hours and allowing staff to work from home could also be implemented by organisations to help reduce absenteeism as a result of non-illness issues, such as school closures and transport disruptions.

Hidden costs of a pandemic

Fear can spread as much as the contagion itself in times of pandemics, and this can bring with it additional costs, if not handled properly.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, there were initial estimates that 65,000 people could die from the outbreak alone in the UK. In the end, the swine flu pandemic accounted for just 457 deaths, yet still cost Britain more than £1.2 billion – much of which was spent stockpiling unused flu vaccines.

Returning to normal

Once a pandemic has passed, however, a return to normal working may be problematic, as partners and key suppliers could still be impacted by the pandemic – so a staggered return to normality, especially if an organisation has suffered a more comprehensive shut down, may be needed.

But with pandemics, their timing and impact is impossible to predict and it is not until one actually strikes that organisations will fully know how prepared it is. But with a robust plan in place and infection control measures that are easily understood and followed – thus improving their effectiveness – those in the public sector should be able to reduce their risks and limit the spread of a pandemic.