Despite the vast amount of coverage that bird flu has received in the media in recent months, it has emerged that the majority of UK employers are still unprepared and unaware of the potential impact that the anticipated pandemic could have on their business, and are failing to make necessary contingency plans.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that, given the levels of international travel today, a pandemic could easily reach the same scale as the Spanish flu, which killed around 20 million people. Despite the fact the virus has originated in the Far East, the United Nations has warned of the very real threat to Europe following recent cases of the virus in Turkey.

In general, it is good business practice to be prepared, and this week HSBC has announced that it is putting plans in place based on the "worst case scenario", estimating that if a pandemic hits, up to half of all its staff worldwide could become ill or be absent from work. The NHS is also reviewing its continuity plans, considering various possible scenarios, for example, how it will cope and operate with 30% of its staff absent.

Despite this, most employers are underestimating the possible implications for their most valuable asset: their employees. Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, has stated: "Businesses should evaluate all real and perceived risks to their organisation. While it may be more front of mind to prepare for other threats, such as terrorism, a pandemic could cause even greater disruption." Employers are advised to put plans in place now with input from HR, health and safety and senior management personnel.

Possible plans could simply include providing staff with information leaflets to keep them informed of where to avoid travelling to or providing equipment for employees to work from home if the need arises. It is advised that employers take the following measures:

  • Incorporate a contingency plan into overall business strategy and test it's effectiveness;
  • Inform and consult with employees to make them aware that a plan exists and what to do if a pandemic reaches the UK;
  • Identify and keep records of skills and capabilities of the entire workforce so that employees may be redeployed, and cross-train staff if needed;
  • Evaluate the real and perceived risks by monitoring the spread of bird flu;
  • Look at alternative methods of communication that do not involve personal contact such as web casting and video links; and
  • Look at revising policies on flexible working, home working, staff travel and health.

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