Brain Food: Workplace rights - Pandemic panic stations

Most experts believe a new influenza pandemic is just a matter of time. There were, after all, three of them last century, with up to a quarter of the UK population affected and thousands dying. Avian flu is the current scare, although it remains to be seen whether it will mutate into a virus transferable between humans. The impact on business if it does so could be devastating. The Government believe that 25% of workers would be off work for between five and eight days over a three-month period, with absenteeism at up to 15%. Multinationals could fare even worse. HSBC, which was hit by the Sars outbreak in 2003, says up to half its global workforce could be knocked out by bird flu. Companies can devise various contingency plans, such as identifying a front-line of essential employees, establishing minimum staffing levels and effective communication channels and locating overnight accommodation. Introduction of flexible working practices will facilitate prompt redeployment of workers into alternative roles, while methods for recruiting and training temporary staff at short notice can be organised in advance. Finally, systems should be put in place for providing the counselling or other psychological support that many employees may need.

Michael Burd and James Davies, Lewis Silkin solicitors, e-mail:

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