Over recent days, the headlines have been dominated by reports of the way in which bird flu appears to have taken hold in Turkey, reigniting fears of a flu pandemic. Although there is still no sign of a human to human pandemic, employers are starting to take steps to address any potential disruption which may be caused by such an outbreak. The consequences of a flu pandemic for UK employers could include:

  • A staffing shortage. The WHO has estimated that 25% of workers will take some time off work if a pandemic takes hold;
  • Liability to employees for breach of legal duties to provide a safe system of work; and
  • Significant changes in the demand for goods and services (either upwards, e.g. in the healthcare sector, or downwards, e.g. in travel and entertainment industries), with an impact on required staffing levels.

So, what preparatory steps can employers take to mitigate these effects? In our view, these should include:

  • Identifying priority roles and assessing how they will be carried out in the event that employees stay away from work;
  • Assessing what measures are appropriate to maintain a safe working environment for employees in the event of a pandemic and making any necessary arrangements to put them in place;
  • Considering emergency health and safety measures such as quarantine for infected employees or those returning from high risk areas, providing employees with a vaccine against the pandemic strain if one becomes available and arranging for offices to be more regularly cleaned;
  • Where appropriate, putting additional IT facilities in place to enable staff to work from home;
  • Reviewing policies and procedures on sickness, absence and reporting and employees' entitlements to take time off to make arrangements for the care of a dependent;
  • Drawing up a procedure to deal with employees who unreasonably refuse to come into work because they fear infection;
  • Being clear on where to find up-to-date, reliable information on the issues; and
  • Inviting trade unions, works councils or other employee representative bodies (as appropriate) to discuss the problems that might arise and how they should be dealt with.

If you would like any further information or guidance in connection with the steps set out above or in relation to any other employment issue, please contact:

Ian Hunter, Tel: 020 7415 6140 or email: ian.hunter@twobirds.com or
Warren Wayne, Tel: 020 7905 6230 or email: warren.wayne@twobirds.com