Shaking off the flu

October 27 2005

Business leaders, like everyone else, are being bombarded with news about the risk of a human bird flu pandemic. Executives should consider now what, if anything, they need to do to prepare against this threat.

Decisions must be based on a sober evaluation of the risks. According to most experts, the probability of a human pandemic this winter is small. So there is no cause for panic.

However, many experts think such a pandemic is likely to occur one day. If it does, it could have disastrous consequences. It therefore makes sense to draw up contingency plans to deal with the worst-case scenario. These should be based on two key objectives: to take care of staff and to minimise disruption to the business and its revenues.

Some companies have tried to deal with the threat by ordering the Tamiflu vaccine. In some cases this may be sensible. But given the existing shortage of supplies, this is unlikely to be an adequate strategy in the short to medium term.

Stockpiling some Tamiflu or Relenza, but not enough for all staff, could be very divisive. It would be unjustifiable to make drugs available only to senior management, although it might be reasonable to give them to staff travelling to high-risk areas, or those in mission-critical roles. Mishandling this could devastate morale and may even create legal risks.

Rather than focusing on treatment, businesses should concentrate on ¬revising their business continuity plans to take account of this new threat.

The first obvious step is to designate a senior official to monitor the progress of the disease. This person should be charged with communicating timely information to staff. This would help dispel rumours and minimise the risk of panic.

As an outbreak is likely to occur first in a specific place, companies should limit their reliance on a single location.

Manufacturers with global supply chains must ensure that their supply chains are flexible enough to switch production to alternative hubs if ¬necessary. In some cases, it could be wise to build extra inventories.

Service-sector companies are less exposed, but must still consider the risks of being dependent on any one facility for sales or customer support.

All companies must consider how they would work around possible travel bans, and whether or not they would seek to repatriate some staff.

If a pandemic took hold globally, it could rage for months or years, probably in waves. Companies need to be able to operate throughout. One answer is to equip essential workers to work effectively from home, ensuring communications links with customers and suppliers.

No amount of forward planning could ever fully protect business against a bird flu pandemic. But much can be done to mitigate its effects, at relatively low cost. The sooner it is done, the better


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