Formal Pandemic announced ... but how well are organisations prepared?

Swine Flu (H1N1) status change to Pandemic (Level 6)… amidst general business apathy.

11 June 2009

The World Health Organisation has increased the alert level for A(H1N1) or Swine Flu to a level 6 Pandemic alert.

This Pandemic Alert, the first for 40 years, confirms that the H1N1 virus is now maintaining sustained human to human infection in at least two geographic areas. With outbreaks as far apart as Australia and Europe, the upgrade to alert level 6 Pandemic is no surprise as the formal announcement is linked to a confirmation of wide geographic spread rather than any specific increase in the severity of infections.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organisation speaking yesterday was at pains to stress that confirming Pandemic Status for this novel H1N1 virus “does not mean that the severity of the situation has increased and that people are getting more seriously sick at higher numbers or higher rates than they are right now”

He added, “We also do not know how this virus is going to evolve. It could become more mild over time, or it could become more severe over time, or it could stay pretty much as it is now. These are uncertainties that we have to take into account but we really do not know how that is going to go forward.”

In speaking on the infections to date that are now approaching 30,000 cases with many more suspected of going unreported, Dr Fukada indicated that most were in those below 60, with many infections occurring in those from in their mid 20’s. He stated that at the moment it was unclear whether or not this was due to the travel patterns or if there were other clinical factors involved. Of the 141 deaths seen so far half were in people with underlying health issues and the infection is currently generally assessed as “Mild and Self Limiting”, although it should be said that this could change as the virus develops.

What is clear though is that many people are likely to fall ill over the coming months and that this will have an impact, as they will be unable to work for between 7-10 days.

The Continuity Forum has been compiling data on the planning in place to cope with possible disruption caused by a pandemic over the course of the past month. Over 800 responses have been received from organisations of all types and their content reveals a stark difference in attitude between the public and private sectors.

Against a backdrop of rapidly rising cases (roughly doubling each week) the majority of businesses have still failed to heed government advice to plan for the effects of staff losses and other disruption. Amongst our very largest companies and in the Public Sector planning has generally been untaken, though there are doubts about the depth and likely effectiveness of measures taken and there is little evidence of real commitment to the process across the country.

Taking the top tier of organisations, fewer than half (46%) have implemented Pandemic specific plans with 78% of these being described as incomplete. Organisations with a significant international dimension fare only slightly better with 59% stating they have plans, although 67% are said to be incomplete.

Public Sector Organisations are generally better prepared in terms of planning, but outside of these sectors preparations and planning in organisations rapidly declines. Across the whole of the UK research suggests that fewer than 10% have any kind planning in place to help manage the impact of the Pandemic, which can reasonably be expected to continue to grow over the coming months and particularly in the traditional Flu season later in the year.

Hopefully the WHO announcement will motivate and stimulate many more organisations to start planning now.

Forum Comment

Commenting on the WHO announcement, Russell Price of the Continuity Forum stated “ The World Health Organisation are really just validating what has been evident for the past few weeks with the confirmation of this novel H1N1 virus as Pandemic. The issue isn’t what we are seeing at the moment but rather how it will develop, spread and evolve. Whilst 30,000 may appear to be a large number of cases, over the coming months this will continue to rise especially after the summer when the Northern Hemisphere enters its Flu season”

He added, “Caution and prudence are key in reacting to this threat, we should be careful to be neither complacent and underestimate or ignore the threat, or panic and over estimate it’s potential impact. There is a lot still to learn about the virus and there are issues around how it will develop … will it get more or less severe? We just don’t know at this time, and it must seen as prudent or indeed the responsibility of organisations to carefully consider how they may be affected later in the year. Failing to act now is throwing away the window of opportunity available to act and prepare for what could be said to be an inevitable period of disruption in the Autumn.”

The Continuity Forum is holding a Pandemic Summit on the 26th June that will provide a detailed update on the threat and the planning that can be undertaken by organisations.

In addition, there will be two Pandemic Planning workshops in July to further assist and support organisations develop their planning and response.

For more details on any of these sessions please contact us directly.