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Pandemic Planning: Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) – Should we panic?

This week Charlie looks at the ongoing outbreak of Coronavirus, and what precautions your organisation should take to be prepared.

You can’t have missed the outbreak of the flu-like disease, Coronavirus, and the China’s response of shutting down travel from the City of Wuhan, as well as several other areas and tourist attractions. According to the BBC’s website, the number of people who have caught the virus is around 830, and there have been confirmed cases today (Friday 24th January 2020) in Vietnam and Singapore, as well as the existing recording of confirmed cases, in Thailand, the US, Taiwan and South Korea. The UK also has a number of cases under investigation!

In terms of panicking, I think the answer is to stay calm, but in this bulletin I have always said it is the role of the business continuity manager to horizon scan, to understand new threats and to be able to advise their top management on a suitable response as required. Now 2019-nCoV is not the Black Death, which between 1347-1351 killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population, but as I came into Heathrow Airport from Colombia last night, a flight had just arrived from China, and seeing all the people come off the flight with their face masks on was quite intimidating and scary.

In terms of deaths from flu, I found this information on the number of people killed by ‘normal flu’ in a year in the UK: ‘Influenza (flu) is a very common, highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It can be very dangerous, causing serious complications and death, especially for people in risk groups. In rare cases, flu can kill people who are otherwise healthy. In the UK it is estimated that an average of 600 people a year die from complications of flu. In some years it is estimated that this can rise to over 10,000 deaths, which estimated over 13,000 deaths resulting from flu in 2008-09’. So, we can have up to 10,000 deaths in the UK in a single year from flu, but at the moment this outbreak has only 26 confirmed deaths. In the last serious outbreak of a similar type of flu, SARS in 2003, the outbreak ‘only’ killed less than 800 worldwide, so I think we have to view the fatalities in terms of the average impact of seasonal flu. My interpretation of the situation is that this outbreak is going to dominate the news for a while, similar to Ebola when it first spread, but the actual impact on the worldwide population and most organisations will be negligible.

In spite of the minimal impact for most of us, I think if your organisation is in the middle of an area which has reported cases, if you have staff traveling to an affected area, or the lockdown of cities and government travel restrictions could have an impact on your supply chain, you should review your exposure and put out communications and possible precautions to reassure your staff. In an incident, good communication is critically important and in this incident, this is definitely true. Once you have reviewed your possible exposure to the virus, you should then communicate measured and risk-based instructions to your staff. If you address the issue, you then stop the panickers who are inclined to overreact and think that ‘we are all doomed’, but also the blasé who for every incident think ‘it will never happen here’. Your communications may just say that we as an organisation are aware of the threat of 2019-nCoV, we are continuing to monitor the situation and will advise staff if any additional restrictions or measures need to be taken. By saying nothing to staff, it looks like you are not aware of the ongoing incident or you are not really bothered about your staffs’ safety.

I also think in the background, it might be worth dusting off your pandemic plan and checking whether it needs updating. I don’t think it will be needed for most of us, but we are in the business of contingency planning, so I think it is always worth having your plan ready. A while ago I produced some advice which you may want to consider when doing your planning, this can be found here. I think the response to an epidemic for any organisation, should be the introduction of a pandemic operating regime which allows you to operate your organisation in a different way, to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

In conclusion, there are four tasks I think you as a ‘Business Continuity Manager’ should carry out:

  1. Continue to monitor the situation
  2. Review your organisation’s exposure to the threat
  3. Communicate with your staff appropriate to your threat exposure
  4. Update your pandemic plan or develop one if you don’t have one in place
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