Swine Flu – Guidance For Employers

On 18 September, the NHS announced that new cases of swine flu (influenza A H1N1) in England had risen by a third, suggesting that the surge in infections anticipated with the approach of winter may have already begun.

The swine flu virus is an unusual strain, not only because it has proven to be highly infectious in the summer months but also because it seems to affect young people more severely than it does the middle-aged. Thus far, more than 70 people have died in the UK after contracting the virus. Pregnant women and those with underlying health problems are considered to be particularly at risk.

Swine flu has several potential legal implications for firms, for example:

  • Liability for failing to take steps to prevent the spread of the infection, particularly to those known to be in a high-risk group, and to maintain a safe working environment. Have you carried out a risk assessment yet? Don’t forget that there is a specific statutory duty on employers to carry out a risk assessment in respect of pregnant women and new mothers;
  • The impact on staff who remain at work, if they work longer hours than usual in order to cover for staff who have contracted the virus;
  • Problems which may arise if an outbreak results in you failing to deliver to one of your customers or you have a supplier or contractor who lets you down as a result of swine flu (which may be considered to be ‘force majeure’). Consider your potential liabilities should either event occur and check your insurance position carefully.

It will be a fortunate business that is left completely unscathed by the virus but there are steps that you can take to protect your staff and keep them informed so as to improve the chances of keeping your business up and running. Be prepared to be flexible. Could staff work from home? Are there alternative ways of doing business other than by direct contact, for example teleconferencing instead of face to face meetings?

Given that employees may be able to self-certify themselves as unfit for work for up to a fortnight, employers must be prepared to deal with the disruption the pandemic may cause. If you have not already done so, put in place contingency measures for dealing with mass absenteeism. Also, consider what steps you can take to prevent staff returning to work too soon.

Examine all your staff policies and procedures to make sure they are compatible with any situations that may arise. For example, does your sickness policy cover the position of a member of staff who is healthy but who has to take time off work because they have caring responsibilities for someone else who is infected with the virus?

Make sure you have up-to-date contact details for all your staff and know who to contact in an emergency.

As always, when considering measures you can take to protect employees, it is important to take care not to overstep the line between protecting them and violating their human rights.

Swine Flu – Known High-Risk Groups

People in the following groups may need to start taking antiviral drugs as soon as they are diagnosed with the illness. Doctors may advise some high-risk patients to take antivirals before they develop symptoms, if someone close to them has swine flu.

It is already known that people are particularly vulnerable if they have:

  • chronic lung disease;
  • chronic heart disease;
  • chronic kidney disease;
  • chronic liver disease;
  • chronic neurological disease (neurological disorders include motor neurone disease, multiple
  • sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease);
  • immunosuppression (whether caused by disease or treatment); or
  • diabetes mellitus.

Also at risk are:

  • patients who have had drug treatment for asthma in the past three years;
  • pregnant women;
  • people aged 65 and over; and
  • children under five.

You can keep up-to-date on the latest Government guidance at here.

If you are concerned about the effects of swine flu, we can help you to formulate a management strategy to deal with it.

The material contained in this article is provided for general purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. Appropriate legal advice should be sought for specific circumstances and before action is taken.

Please contact:

Emmanuelle Ries

DD +44 (0)20 7553 9938

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