The 2009 global outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus (swine flu) demonstrated how quickly a pandemic situation can arise. Whilst the virus itself has proven to be only mild, health officials continue to monitor outbreaks of the H1N1 virus, as well as other influenza strains, across the globe. In addition, the Australian government continues to respond as per the pandemic response “Protect” phase, with the focus on those who are particularly susceptible to the virus.
With our main flu season not yet underway, only sporadic detections of seasonal and pandemic influenza have been reported across Australia so far this year. Therefore, rather than become complacent, businesses should take the opportunity now to review and refine their pandemic plans and policies in readiness for the flu season.
So what lessons have we learned as a result of the swine flu pandemic that will aid businesses in becoming better prepared?
1. Sound and adaptable plans.
Pandemic Management Plans need to be adaptable to changing conditions and to the severity of the virus or disease. The team responsible for implementing the plan must realise that the plan is to be used as a guide to assist with the decision making process. Each new type of disease or virus can alter whether certain actions within a response plan are appropriate. Common sense and good judgement should still be employed.
With mass media coverage and often inconsistent and inaccurate information abounding, organisations must take responsibility for communicating appropriate and accurate information in a timely manner to its employees. To help allay fears that employees may have, it is vital to provide regular information about the situation and how the organisation will handle the impending threat. Prompt and frequent communication will help to allay fears that employees may have and to provide information on how the organisation will handle the impending threat. A crisis communication plan should also consider how messages will be distributed to employees.
3. Alternate work arrangements.
Organisations need to be ready for a good proportion of their staff to work from home or an alternate location. Have the IT requirements to enable such a strategy been considered? For example, is remote access available for critical staff? If this has already been incorporated into the company pandemic plan, have the IT capabilities been confirmed and tested?
4. Staff Pandemic Leave Policies.
Policies need to be in place to govern the organisations actions should an employee be exposed to, or become ill with the virus. A considerable number of organisations were caught without a policy or accurate knowledge as to their rights and responsibilities in the event that an employee was suspected or confirmed with having the H1N1 virus. Was the organisation within its rights to ask the employee to stay home? Could they force an employee to take sick leave? Do we have succession plans in place to cover our critical functions? These are a few of the issues that a staff pandemic leave policy should address. Relevant workplace authorities should be consulted in developing these policies.
5. Availability of pandemic supplies.
Within days of the virus having been confirmed within Australia during 2009, stores of pandemic supplies such as masks and gloves became difficult to come by and prices increased dramatically. Whilst common sense needs to prevail in the ordering and stockpiling of such items within an organisation, this occurrence does highlight a need for the purchase of PPE to be included as an action item to be considered during the early phases of a potential pandemic.
6. Review and Test.
Whilst a lot of organisations have developed pandemic management plans, having a plan that sits on a shelf is not sufficient. The plan needs to be reviewed regularly and most importantly tested. Only once the plan is tested can gaps be identified and further lessons learned.
Remember, a pandemic requires a whole of society approach. It is not enough for the Government to be prepared, businesses need to take responsibility to ensure they can respond effectively to a pandemic threat.
Senior Consultant, Business Continuity, RiskLogic