Introduction

The outbreak of the Coronavirus (designated WN-CoV or 2019-nCoV) originating in China is viewed in the UK as a high-consequence infectious disease and a 'moderate' health risk. It is being carefully monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO) which has now declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. (See Useful References below.)

The latest virus is of a similar strain to that which caused the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002-2003 and the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012. SARS caused over 8,000 cases and resulted in 774 deaths in 17 countries (mortality rate of 9%). MERS killed over 500 people with under reported 2,000 cases in 26 countries (mortality rate of 36%). Both viruses waned after a couple of years. The mortality rate of the current Coronavirus outbreak is estimated at 2-3% but the spread is more rapid.

This guidance outlines the practices that businesses may wish to consider when conducting business operations before, during and after a serious disease outbreak that could become an epidemic or pandemic. Because details of the latest outbreak are still emerging, this guidance for business is based on lessons learnt from previous outbreaks of global significance like SARS and MERS.

Strategy

Any strategy towards disease preparedness should involve two distinct aspects:

  1. Containment of the impact upon the organisation’s business objectives;
  1. Continuity of the business, potentially in a reduced capacity for some period or periods, each lasting possibly several weeks.

Principles and Priorities

The principle of business as usual should be adopted as far as possible. However, as a high proportion of staff (potentially 25-50%) may be either absent or ill then this principle should focus attention on maintaining critical functions of the business: these are activities that the business cannot operate without and are core to it surviving and thriving. All departments and sites should identify their critical functions.

While standard resilience and business continuity plans will be relevant, the main target will be people not systems. Hence, all plans should have details of how people can protect themselves, how hygiene measures can minimise transmission, and how work routines can be adapted to cater for high sickness and absentee rates.

To operate and support the critical functions of the business, it will be necessary to identify essential staff and their replacements for extended working. These people should receive priority in any prophylactic medical treatments and home-working arrangements. They should be identified, briefed and prepared.

All company plans should be exercised at least once a year. Plans of third-party providers, especially key suppliers, should be examined and tested at least biennially.

Planning and Preparation

Planning and preparation will be focused on a comprehensive plan to cater for a severely reduced workforce. This should identify those actions to be taken before, during and after a pandemic.

  1. Before. The plan should include measures to educate and train all permanent and temporary staff, as well as contractors, on the health dangers, how to identify symptoms early, and what hygiene precautions to take to reduce infection rates. Encouraging staff to report freely any symptoms and take swift and appropriate treatment may require a cultural shift in working practices.
  1. During. The plan should include measures to deal with dispersed work (e.g. home working, separate sites) based on the maintenance of critical functions. Social distancing at work will require new practices and working routines to be applied but non-infected staff will be expected to attend their normal place of work unless instructed otherwise. Succession planning will be essential, especially for critical departments.
  1. After. The planned recovery of the business in a changed market environment will help to ensure the company remains ahead of its competitors. Hence it will be important to try and anticipate post-event shifts in product demand, in the availability of new and retrained staff, and adjusted supply networks.

Escalation 

Each area/region in a company should be responsible for assessing the disease threat in their locale. End markets, through regional structures, should ensure that the company is informed of any significant developments as early as possible.

Any escalation in the situation, and appropriate advice, should be passed to staff and contractors via normal management channels. The escalation ladder for messages should follow the alerts adopted by the WHO, supplemented by any national procedures.

Protocols

All preparatory plans should list the specific actions to be taken in response to international/national alert notices and detail the responsibilities for their activation and completion. These actions can be grouped into a set of protocols that address the main issues that are likely to be faced.

The main protocols are:         

  1. Hygiene, Cleaning and Infection Control. Details of how to maintain the highest possible hygiene standards in offices and factories, including the use and disposal of Personal Protective Equipment (e.g. masks, gloves, overalls, etc), and how to achieve social distancing at work.
  1. Management of Suspected or Confirmed Cases. Details of how to deal with staff who become ill at work, the method of reporting sickness, and managing sickness levels over protracted periods.
  1. Medical Evacuation. Details of how and when to evacuate staff and dependants (sick or otherwise) from infected locations, their repatriation to home territories if requested, and how to deal with staff who may become stranded because of border closures during travel.
  1. Anti-Viral and Vaccine Medications. Details of the storage, distribution and replacement of prophylactic medicines if they are available and have been acquired.
  1. Travel Management. Details of the rules on business travel to infected or suspect areas and how to apply a quarantine regime to staff returning from infected areas.
  1. HR Management. Details of flexible working hours, actions on absenteeism and sick leave, notification to external (health) agencies, contact tracing, and bereavement arrangements.
  1. Alternative Working Practices. Details of arrangements to utilise video-conferencing and minimise face-to-face meetings, and arrangements for, and entitlements to, home working, including risk assessments and insurances for such working.
  1. Insurance and Legal Issues. Details of potential employers’ liabilities, business interruption insurance, cancellation and abandonment policies, and insurance provision for staff (including travellers) when local or national restrictions apply. Insurance may also be important in the administration of prophylactic medicines and the enforcement of local quarantines.
  1. Communication and PR. Details of the communication campaign to announce and manage the messages to internal and external parties (critical and non-essential), before, during and after a pandemic. This should include arrangements for liaising with local communities, customers and visitors.

Post-outbreak Recovery

The management of human resources would be among the most difficult issues after a major outbreak. It would be reasonable to expect considerable staff turbulence and market volatility in a period of widespread uncertainty. Hence, it is important in planning to address the following:

  1. The reintegration, re-absorption and redirection of staff (and suppliers) in order to resume previous functions and roles. It may be necessary to hire additional staff in what could be a tight labour market.
  1. The rehabilitation of staff will require advanced planning that could include psychological support, assistance programmes, as well as temporary and more permanent redundancy approaches.

While it may be natural to plan to recover from an outbreak to the status quo ante, the post-pandemic environment may be very different. It will be important to ensure that the company preserves its keys stocks, key suppliers and core manufacturing capacity in readiness to meet the revised level of demand.

Fuller details of these protocols can be found here.

Useful References:

  1. Coronavirus: latest information. PHE Guidance, updated on 30 January.
  2. Wuhan novel coronavirus (WN-CoV) infection prevention and control guidance, PHE Guidance, updated 15 January 2020.
  3. Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) advice for the public, WHO.