Companies in swine flu fight over staff and profits

Most businesses were trying to avoid being swept up in the panic this week. But with the number of cases doubling to 100,000, companies were testing business continuity plans to make sure they could cope with large numbers of sick workers.

“With companies already hit by recession, the threat from swine flu is the last thing firms need,” said David Frost, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce.

One research group, FirstCare, estimates the number of people off work because of colds, coughs and flu is three times higher than normal for the time of year.

The caution shown by companies such as Britvic could help explain part of the jump. The drinks maker said it was taking the “sensible approach” of asking staff to work from home if friends, family or anyone else they meet has swine flu.

However, BT, one of the country’s biggest employers, said it was not seeing “significant absentee rates at this stage”. Nevertheless, the telecommunications group is sending out regular bulletins to staff about the threat and has given “hygiene packs” to engineers, including alcohol wipes and face masks.

Ocado, the Waitrose owned online grocer, is issuing delivery drivers with hand sanitisers and wipes to reassure customers. Domino’s Pizza said in the event of a more serious outbreak it could leave orders at a customer’s front door to avoid contact. J. Sainsbury has bought masks for workers in case of a serious outbreak.

The BBC was criticised this week for buying 4,000 doses of the anti viral drug Tamiflu, and there is sensitivity among companies anxious not to be seen to hoard stocks, though several banks including Nomura and HSBC have supplies if needed.

Centrica, owner of British Gas, said: “Tamiflu is being provided for our employees who work in critical roles, for example those working on offshore platforms and service engineers who provide essential maintenance support in customers’ homes, to be taken only if they begin to display symptoms.”

Some companies– such as Google, Nomura and Goldman Sachs– are installing extra hand cleaning facilities, including alcohol wipes outside lifts and in staff canteens. Inter­Continental Hotels Group, owner of the Holiday Inn chain, has gone further by installing hand sanitisers for customers in hotel bathrooms and restaurants.

Honda, the carmaker, has introduced “enhanced cleaning” for all solid surfaces, including door handles, and issued staff with antiseptic handwash. BBH, a large advertising agency in London’s Soho, has “deep cleaned” the desks of infected staff.

Away from business but reflecting the general caution, students graduating at Sussex university were given alcohol gel on Friday before they went on stage to receive their certificate and shake hands with Sanjeev Bhaskar, the comedian and university chancellor.

“It seems like a good idea– he’s going to be shaking hands with 400 students,” said Tom Wills, president of the university’s student union.


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