Viewpoint: are businesses well enough placed to deal with flu pandemic?

Trevor Elswood, BSI group managing director

Although the symptoms of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) are currently similar to a normal bout of winter flu, the World Health Organisation has designated the current alert level for the virus as Phase 6, indicating widespread human infection.  So, what are companies doing to ensure business continuity?


Well, not a lot according to recent Chartered Management Institute's Business Continuity Management (BCM) research sponsored by the UK Cabinet Office.  The research suggests that only 19% of UK organisations have a robust plan in place to handle a flu pandemic.  While public sector organisations seem to be better prepared, the corporate sector appears to be lagging behind with just 11% of SMEs having addressed a flu pandemic in their Business Continuity Plans (BCPs).

All businesses, including those in the travel and accommodation service provider industry, must not be complacent, and should be looking at implementing a number of initiatives and trigger points into their BCPs to handle the current pandemic.

Many service providers in our sector have business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place that deal with major system failure events, but business continuity planning should identify all potential risks - including staff absence.

It would be easy to sit back and think a pandemic will affect everyone, and as such clients will start implementing their own travel restrictions on staff which will lead to a decrease in demand for business travel services.  However, this approach is very short-sighted.  The business travel industry has a responsibility to its clients to ensure service continuity.

To ensure services are not severely disrupted for clients, there are several steps a company can take, including reviewing your company policy, assessing the skills of your team, and looking at how communication can support your BCP.

Companies should:

  • - Consider putting an ICT infrastructure in place that can enable easy switching of in-bound calls to alternative sites and remote access capability for home-workers.
  • - Review and assess the skills of the team - this could include identifying additional potential resources to maintain key resources, including ancillary operational workers from other non-critical departments, who could be fully trained to deliver service provision.
  • - Create a BCP Committee which is responsible for identifying and implementing agreed trigger points within the plan, as well as established policies in place addressing flexible working practices and travel restrictions.
  • - Look at your internal communications and training programme, and ensure that it includes the distribution of information relating to identifying flu signs and symptoms, methods of transmission, coughing/sneezing etiquette, and hand hygiene.
  • - Ask employees to adopt a clear desk policy at the end of each day to ensure that cleaning staff are able to clean desks sufficiently.
  • - Review the Government's guidelines for a pandemic based scenario, and reasonable worst case scenarios to calculate how many staff could be absent at the peak of a pandemic.
  • - Keep contact with your client base - introduce restrictions on non-essential travel to stop the spread of the virus, and invest in alternative methods of communication for meetings, including teleconferencing or online Webex conferencing to maintain day-to-day contact with colleagues and customers.