Coronavirus: keep calm and carry on?

20 Feb 2020 By PM Editorial

The possibility of a pandemic is currently increasing – so what steps can HR professionals take to protect their employees?

This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of People Management magazine

No one likes to spend longer than they have to in a conference centre. But for the 200 British and foreign nationals who arrived in the UK mid-February on a chartered flight from Chinese city Wuhan (ground zero of the recent Coronavirus outbreak), Milton Keynes Conference Centre became their home for 14 days. 

These unfortunate travellers are not the only ones to be quarantined. Thousands of tourists on cruise liners are being kept onboard off the shores of Italy, Japan and Hong Kong. In Wuhan itself, more than 11 million people are in lockdown, with reports of lifts in apartment complexes being suspended to further discourage people from leaving their homes.

The virus has rapidly spread across the globe in a way reminiscent of the 2012 MERS outbreak and the SARS pandemic before that. At the time of writing, there were almost 60,000 confirmed cases of the virus (officially called Covid-19) globally, with the death toll in China – the worst affected country – 1,350. In the UK there have been nine confirmed cases, with stricter quarantine rules recently introduced for suspected cases. 

While the risk is currently still moderate in the UK, employers nonetheless need to take steps to ensure their workplaces don’t become hotbeds for germs. The outbreak has highlighted the importance of businesses – particularly large ones – including the possibility of a contagious global pandemic reaching the UK in their risk management activities; particularly preparing for the possibility of employees being forced to stay away from the office. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airline has asked staff to take unpaid leave to help it deal with business losses caused indirectly by the virus, for example.

“The role of HR is to give information, reassure employees and be clear about the medical advice coming through. It is also advisable to talk to occupational health because they have expertise in terms of interpretation of the advice and implementation in the workplace,” says Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD.

It’s not HR’s place to try and be medical advisers, says Suff. But it should keep up to date with information from official channels such as government websites, the NHS, Public Health England and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A contingency plan should also be put in place, containing information on which projects can be put on hold and which roles temporarily stood down, and which managers have the transferable skills to do more than one role should the need arise.

Employers also need to seriously consider the safety of employees travelling for business, says Stephen Pierce, deputy managing director and chief HR officer at Hitachi Europe, one of many firms stopping business travel to China. This needn’t completely halt business though, and companies should consider how technology such as video conferencing might pick up the slack. “It entirely depends on how global your business is. You can also remind people that handshaking is not necessary when meeting face to face, as this is an ideal way to spread the virus,” says Pierce.

If things do get worse in the UK, companies that can should consider remote working. But in sectors where this isn’t possible, such as retail, manufacturing and agriculture, Pierce says there is “no easy fix”. He suggests staff in these environments follow official guidelines around basic hygiene and wash hands frequently and use sanitiser gels.

Whatever the outcome of the outbreak, HR also has a responsibility to ensure the workplace remains as inclusive as possible, says Suff. “There have been media stories of people discriminated against because of their nationality, so it’s worth underlining and reminding staff of the organisation’s approach to diversity,” she says. “Fear can be misdirected in negative ways. We need a sense of calm, community and support among colleagues.”

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