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Are businesses prepared for pandemics?

2010 was a true test of UK firms' business continuity plans, the year started with the 'Big Freeze', followed the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano ash cloud and ended as it had started, with millions of employees unable to make it in to work thanks to extreme weather conditions and heavy snow.

Having tackled all of these incidents in the past 12 months, you would think that companies would have learnt their lesson and have thorough business continuity plans in place; however, for many this is still not the case.

The recent Acronis Global Disaster Recovery Index found that the UK lags behind many of its European counterparts when it comes to disaster recovery, with just 27 per cent of firms being confident in their ability to avoid downtime in the event of a disaster.

However, with evidence that the swine flu virus, which led to thousands of workers taking time off and cost UK businesses billions of pounds in 2009, is once again striking UK workers, it could be vital that firms take a look at their business continuity arrangements, in particular their pandemic plans.

Is another swine flu epidemic on the cards?

In recent weeks, news reports of swine flu cases have been prominent, however, regardless of what it says in the headlines, the level of swine flu is nowhere near the pandemic levels seen in 2009.

Since September, there have been 254 deaths caused by flu, at least 195 of which were caused by the H1N1 virus – swine flu. But while this number is steep and has risen quickly from 112 deaths two weeks ago, flu rates have actually started to decrease.

According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), the number of patients in critical care being treated for flu symptoms has dropped from 661 two weeks ago to 418 at the end of last week.

Professor John Watson, head of the respiratory diseases department at the HPA, said: "Our latest flu report suggests levels of flu are declining across the UK, but nonetheless flu is still circulating in the community and the message remains that people in an at-risk group should get the seasonal flu vaccine - it's not too late to protect yourself from flu this season."

How can businesses prepare for a pandemic?

Regardless of the fact that levels of flu are dropping, it still pays for businesses to prepare for all eventualities. The first step is for business bosses and managers to ensure they keep themselves well informed about the situation. However, don't believe everything you read in the media, as much of it could be speculation or exaggeration. The best place to go for reliable information about any pandemic is the UK Health Protection Agency website.

The next step is prevention and control; make sure that all staff members are aware of the signs and symptoms of the pandemic flu and know to either take time off or work from home if they are displaying any.

Managers should also take steps to promote good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene to avoid the spreading of any infectious germs. Leaflets and posters on the matter are available from the NHS and can be displayed around the workplace.

Other measures could include staggering breaks so that areas such as the canteen and kitchen don't become overcrowded and using technology rather than face-to-face communication.

However, despite putting preventative measure in place, it is also vital to undertake a Business Impact Analysis which will help work out what the most critical areas of a business are. Business leaders should assess which parts of the business and which people and skillsets are required to keep the business up and running.

It is also important to consider what back-ups there are available in terms of staff and resources and put extra training in place if necessary as well as assessing whether any functions can be done remotely via phone or email.

Finally, once all of these areas have been assessed, it is time to make and implement a plan. An effective plan should take account of the various reasons why people may be off work during a pandemic, for example transport disruptions and school closures may cause absences as well as illness. It is important to have a clear plan in place for each circumstance so there is no confusion.

It is advisable to plan for up to 50 per cent staff absences, but work to minimise how many people are not working by introducing flexible and homeworking schemes.

Once the pandemic is over it is important to plan the return back to business as usual, it can be effective to stagger the return and give any suppliers as much notice as possible so that they can boost their output accordingly.

If you want to improve your business continuity, Aviva can help. Check out our Knowledge Store for information on how to cope with pandemics and other issues as well as templates for a business continuity plan.