A viral pandemic has the potential to cripple the nation’s workforce and infrastructure

A viral pandemic has the potential to cripple the nation’s workforce and infrastructure. Where does government provision end and your contingency planning begin? By Andrea Kirkby

With 5.3 million extra tourists arriving for the Olympics, the risk of avian flu and other pandemics arriving in the UK has greatly increased.


But back in December 2005, the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology said the country was not ready to defend itself against an avian flu pandemic. Have things changed since?

According to Dr Doug Quarry, medical director of International SOS Pandemic Planning Services, the spread of the H5N1 virus is not the only issue – new strains have developed, too. Has preparedness kept up to date with the risk, or are we becoming dangerously complacent?

Globally, government preparedness varies widely. But overall, in terms of healthcare, preparedness has certainly improved. Major vaccine manufacturers ramped up their capabilities in 2006 and the UK government stockpiled 16,000 doses of Pandemix. In fact, now the political issue is whether the UK government has bought too much vaccine and paid too high a price.

The government also put a detailed pandemic strategy in place, which was overhauled in 2011. However, while this covers NHS and social services preparedness in detail, it’s pretty vague on how businesses will cope. Generally, it foresees ‘business as usual’; borders won’t be closed, nor will schools, and while events organisers ‘may prefer’ to cancel major events, there will be no government compulsion.

Unfortunately, that throws the entire burden for preparedness on to individual businesses. And the Association of British Insurers says business interruption policies are unlikely to cover closures as a result of an influenza epidemic. In terms of medical preparedness, a number of businesses are now stockpiling antivirals for key staff and their families. But that’s only the tip of a very large iceberg. Bird flu or swine flu here and in the rest of the world could have a major impact on businesses in many different areas of operations.

Logistics is an obvious area where business continuity plans will be vital. Even if the UK itself isn’t affected, companies that import supplies or outsource parts of their business process are at risk from outbreaks in other countries. British business is now highly dependent on the Far East for its components and sub-assemblies. Call centres in other countries could also be badly affected.

Continuity plans need to enable a speedy response. Australia declared it would close its borders within two hours in the event of a bird-flu pandemic – that would give businesses little time to prepare.

Know your own needs 

Many companies are handicapped by lack of detailed knowledge of their own supply chains. For instance, multiple sourcing won’t help if suppliers all depend on a single crop or base component manufacturer. Service Level Agreements should help guarantee supply, but strategic stockpiling may be necessary.

Within the UK, cash handling and postal services are likely to prove bottlenecks – cash handling was one of the concerns arising from the FSA’s market-wide exercise in 2006. Neither banks nor the Post Office are on the government’s list of Category 2 responders, although arguably they are as vital to the smooth running of the nation as the railways or ports. Smaller bank branches could have to close if staff are sick, leaving some areas without banking facilities and ATM top-ups depend on transport, which could be knocked out early in a pandemic.

Businesses will also rely on telecoms and so network resilience is a major issue. While telecoms companies (both fixed and mobile) are listed as Category 2 responders, facilities will be stretched, particularly where companies have told staff to work from home.

Some companies are now looking at the possibility of using distributed or ‘virtual’ call centres, possible using such services as OPEX hosting. Routing calls to employees’ homes rather than setting up large emergency centres may well be the best way to cope with a pandemic (although ironically, the government plans to set up a centralised public information call centre – just the kind of facility businesses are likely to be avoiding.)

Will the internet stand up to increased usage? There are real concerns about the ability of service providers to cope with the increased traffic. A Booz Allen report in April 2006 speculated that internet provision might only last two to four days into a pandemic. Even then, Jeroen Meijer, an expert in risk at Control Risks, says he believes that working from home requires a completely different way of managing staff. “Businesses will have to change and change fast, or their plans won’t stick.”

While most business continuity plans are focused on assets – offices and IT – pandemic preparedness has to focus on human resources. Meijer says: “It’s like a neutron bomb – your hardware is still there, but you are losing your staff.”

Worst-case scenarios

Government advice appears to understate the risks to business. The 2011 UK Influenza Preparedness Strategy sees the worst-case scenario as flu affecting 50 per cent of the population, with 15 to 20 per cent of staff absent on any single day, and mortality rates of 2 to 5 per cent.

However, the 2006 FSA market-wide exercise modelled staff absence as high as a 60 per cent peak in some business units. Businesses with a high proportion of female, particularly part-time, staff also need to assess the likelihood of staff who are not ill having to look after children if schools close.

Meijer points out that most business systems aren’t yet able to offer staff absence data in a form that’s useful in stress situations. “Absenteeism monitoring is crucial and not many companies have it on a day-to-day basis, so you could say with one push on the button, who is available where.” This is one area where, compared to the sophisticated systems with which many supply chains are run, human resources scores relatively low.

A pandemic is difficult to protect against since it is not a singular event; pandemics typically come in waves lasting six to 15 months. Flexibility has to be built in; equally, companies need trusted sources of information to monitor the pandemic internationally and that feedback will provide the triggers to action. Meijer warns against believing in a “one-button solution” to a dynamic threat. “Your decision-making process needs to incorporate flexibility and continuous monitoring.”


Fortunately, one area that has advanced a good deal recently has been the availability of good information. National media will generally not report in detail on the situation in other countries – affecting the supply chain – while some governments may downplay the situation in order to avoid panic. There are no government plans for a business-orientated information service, so all public information will be consumer focused and therefore of limited utility to the business manager.

Fortunately, a wide range of information products is now available. For instance, International SOS reports include the ascertaining of medical suppliers and reports monitoring government response.

Keep calm and carry on?

One question divides experts: how bad can a pandemic get? At worst, some believe, most of the transport infrastructure might be shut down, telecoms would be badly impacted by lack of maintenance and high usage, and there could be public order problems if the supply of food and other basic items is interrupted. In the face of a social breakdown of that order, there might seem to be no point planning.

However, Jeroen Meijer says that even in this case, those businesses that have planned well will gain an eventual competitive advantage from having done so. “The objective is to stay in business as long as possible and if you have to shut down completely, do it in a controlled manner that provides the best security to your staff and assets, and enables you to restart operations quickly and efficiently.”

It’s difficult to judge business preparedness, since many businesses won’t talk about their preparations. Most companies do now have pandemic plans as part of their business continuity framework, but those plans may not have been revisited for several years. Perhaps they should be.

There’s a huge impact on the work of facilities managers. A plan needs to be put in place for managing the consequences of a pandemic – checking sanitation and air quality, handling high absenteeism and planning for interruption to basic services and to transport. Basic cleaning services should be stepped up – that might mean cleaning lift buttons, door handles, ATM machines and check-in desks as often as hourly. That means increasing the level of service at the same time as managing a staff shortage – not an easy task.

Cross-training staff so that they can step in to replace staff who are absent will be vital – particularly where remote working is not a possibility. In some cases, upgrading systems to allow for remote operation could be a good investment.

Some facilities may need to implement perimeter protection, possibly including thermal scanners (which can detect if someone has a fever) or even DNA testing. New procedures for deliveries may be required to prevent drivers from entering the building – dropping off the deliveries in a secure car park, for instance. Where security is provided by a contractor, common policies and procedures need to be developed with them, including where staff are not admitted, what to do next (send them home? To hospital?) and who to notify within the organisation.

Facilities managers also need to ensure that subcontractors and suppliers have plans to deal with a pandemic. Unlike many disasters, a pandemic will be a sustained event, probably lasting eight to 14 weeks, so planning needs to take that into account. For instance, stocks of critical supplies may need to be built up. Tenant relations and contracts also need to be put under the microscope. If the government or a tenant closes a building, how can you continue to manage it? Are you going to be required – and are you going to be able – to provide emergency relocation for the tenant?

However, while the pandemic threat does have some special characteristics, developing a specific pandemic plan could be a waste of effort. Rather, pandemic plans should be developed within the framework of overall continuity plans.

The most worrying gap is the absence of government involvement in assuring the regular supply of basic goods. Booz Allen Hamilton noted back in 2006 that government needs to assurethe ‘last mile’ – but the 2011 strategy still doesn’t seem to have taken any notice. Is reliance on the private sector, without compulsion or assistance, a responsible government strategy?