Saturday, July 18, 2009

Wash your hands

At the end of interviewing our captains of industry about how they might cope with swine-flu absenteeism, I think the 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' maxim was never so apt.
From today's Review section in the Irish Independent...
Could swine flu really close down the country this winter? Susan Daly reports

Saturday July 18 2009

In as little as three months, one-quarter of the Irish population could be taking to their beds. The Department of Health this week confirmed our fears about the growth of swine flu by warning that one million people could become infected with the (A) H1N1 virus by the winter.

Added to this stark alert, issued by the department's Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, is a doomsday report coming from Britain. The prediction there is that there will be 100,000 new cases of swine flu every day in a six-week period.

Will the last person to take to their beds please turn the lights out? While not all of the projected 25pc of population to be struck down are likely to be employees -- children are particularly vulnerable to it -- there is no doubt that such an eventuality would put a severe strain on staffing levels.

Sean Murphy, Director of Policy with Chambers Ireland, Ireland's largest business network, cautions against hysteria. "The numbers of those infected are still very small, and so far the business impact has been very limited," he says. By the middle of this week, the number of people who had tested positive for swine flu in Ireland was 144.

However, the Department of Health ceased trying to contain the spread of the virus as of Thursday, and instead is focusing on treatment of new cases. It follows a similar change in strategy in the UK. As the history professors' favourite joke used to go, when Britain sneezes, Ireland gets a cold.

So far, 29 people have died of swine flu in Britain, but most have had underlying medical problems. As most cases of swine flu reported here have been pretty mild, Chief Medical Officer Dr Holohan has said that most patients would recover without medical intervention.

Nonetheless, the UK has been treating the possibility of a pandemic as a key risk to their economy, far above flooding, extreme weather or terrorist attacks in terms of relative impact and likelihood.

Sean Murphy says Ireland has also been forewarned. "The key point is that the whole world got a wake-up call at the time of the bird flu crisis," he says. "If, God forbid, this gets worse, we have best practice guidelines nailed down, a good working group behind it and we have passed on this information to our network."

Forfas, the national policy advisory body for enterprise and science, released a guide in 2007 called Business Continuity Planning -- Responding to an Influenza Pandemic, containing checklists and case studies for companies forming continuity plans.

Declan Hughes, head of competitiveness with Forfas, says the notification from Health that 25pc of the population could be out sick by winter was timely. "We would equate that to a 15pc rate of absenteeism, so this is the time for companies to review their existing continuity plans."

The energy giants have detailed emergency plans that are overseen by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER). The ESB, for example, says that it has "a generic pandemic plan as part of their business continuity plan".

A CER spokesperson said they were "satisfied" that these contingency procedures would be sufficient to keep the national energy grid up and running. "Maintaining security of supply has been our focus. It's not going to be a last-minute panic."

So we should have light and heat to comfort us in the dead of a viral winter. It is also true that if there are more people at home sick, there will be a lower demand for bus, rail and tram services. Even so, says the Department of Transport, they have asked each of the public transport agencies to advise of the up-to-date position on their contingency plans. "Discussions are also taking place with agencies regarding vaccination of essential staff," read a statement released to Review from the Department of Transport.

In the wake of the initial World Health Organisation (WHO) warnings on swine flu back in the late spring, airline companies found their share prices temporarily hit. A more permanent fall in confidence would be the fear for any business that relies on customers to assemble in a public space. The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI), for example, says it is keeping the situation under constant review. "The WHO has claimed the virus is unstoppable and were it to reach levels that are predicted globally, then the swine flu may have an affect on global travel which would of course affect the Irish tourist trade," says VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben.

There are, however, some businesses who might benefit from a pandemic. Certainly the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing anti-viral drugs are doing well, such as Swiss company Roche, which has been very busy supplying Tamilflu to stock-piling governments.

Supermarkets and other food and drink retailers would also see a spike in custom if people began to stockpile their cupboards. The larger food retailers have their own contingency plans to get all hands on the shop floor, should staff shortages demand it. Tesco Ireland say that they would be used to similar times like Easter and Christmas, when they would have to get in extra help.

Ultimately, says Sean Murphy of Chambers Ireland, many of those infected with swine flu would come from the more physically vulnerable sections of society, rather than all from the strong, young workforce. However, that presumably could lead to a scenario where, if schools close, say, a large number of parents would have to stay home.

An option, says Patricia Callan, director of the Small Firms Association (SFA), is that companies equip their key employees with the facilities to work from home. But if we're all suddenly working from home, won't that constitute an unbearable strain on our internet providers?

Eircom said in a statement -- sent by email, naturally -- that they have contingency plans to ensure that they maintain critical business operations including broadband, voice and mobile services. They say they are "confident" that their network can cope with increased traffic on the network.

If there is an issue with the contingency plans businesses and public bodies claim they have in place, it is that they are just that -- plans. Declan Hughes of Forfas says that a 15pc absenteeism rate might be manageable for some companies, the US is looking at a worst-case scenario of 40pc. A similar ramp up here in absenteeism would be disastrous.

"The general consensus is that the business community would be shut down," says the SFA's Patricia Callan. Does she fear for the 'green shoots' of progress our depressed economy is touted to be showing? "There are absolutely no green shoots," she says. "The pace of deterioration is slowing but it's still going in the wrong direction. This would be devastating."

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