Swine flu shirkers cost firms more than virus, say employers
Thousands of healthy workers are thought to have taken advantage of official guidelines on the pandemic to extend their summer holidays.
By simply phoning the NHS swine flu hot line or visiting its website, unscrupulous workers can get themselves a course of antiviral medicine and do not need a sick note from their GP for the first seven days’ absence.
The labour Government is considering doubling this period to a fortnight, which companies fear could make the situation worse and cost them millions of pounds in lost productivity at a time when they are struggling with the effects of the recession.
There are predictions that more healthy workers will be tempted to call in sick as the weather improves over the next week, after the wettest July on record.
The Employment Law Advisory Service, which provides legal advice to companies on personnel problems, disclosed yesterday that it had begun receiving calls from concerned managers as soon as the self-diagnosis website was set up last month.
It has since heard from more than 1,000 companies that believe staff have exploited concern about the spread of the H1N1 virus to take an extra week off. It believes that the Department of Health’s guidance risks creating a “skiver’s charter”.
Peter Mooney, the service’s head of consultancy, said: “Managers feel that some staff are simply taking advantage of concerns about the transmission of swine flu to take an extra few days off work. Because the emphasis has been on not going to your local GP but using websites to assess the infection and the risk to others, those who stay at home are not going to need a doctor’s note or have too many people calling on them to see how they feel.
“Based on the volume, and the nature, of calls we have been taking, the number of deliberate false cases of the condition is having a significant impact on workplaces across the country — something bosses are keen to tackle.”
The Department of Health’s own planning assumptions state that nine per cent of the workforce could be absent at any one time during August, rising to 12 per cent in the winter. Ministers set up emergency measures to reduce the pressure on the NHS and slow the transmission of the virus amid predictions of a worst-case scenario in which one in three of the population falls ill and 65,000 people die.
Those who believe they have symptoms are advised to contact the National Pandemic Flu Service over the phone or online, rather than visit a family doctor.
If they are diagnosed with swine flu, they are given a number to allow them to collect a course of antiviral drugs and told to stay at home for a minimum of seven days in order to prevent further spread of the virus.
The flu service website and phone line handed out over 150,000 doses of Tamiflu in its first week. However, there is evidence that only about one in four recipients actually has the H1N1 virus.
GPs have said that they are being inundated with calls from patients claiming to have swine flu and requesting a note to sign them off work for longer than a week. Many are concerned that they are being asked to certify that people are ill without having seen them, meaning shirkers could take advantage.
Recent figures suggest the average worker takes 7.4 days off sick a year at a total cost of £17.3?billion to the economy, so the impact of staff taking another fortnight off for self-diagnosed swine flu could cripple some small businesses.
Ben Willmott, a senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “Obviously some employers are concerned that employees could take advantage of that.”
He urged managers to make sure they have contingency plans in place so they can cope if staff are genuinely ill with swine flu, and also to ensure that workers know that absence levels are monitored in order to catch those “swinging the lead”.
Meanwhile, GPs have been warned that a Tamiflu solution designed for babies will run out if it continues to be given to people who do not like to swallow capsules.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has told doctors not to prescribe the antiviral liquid to older children or adults. In a bulletin to members, the college said this was happening “across the country” and was “causing an unprecedented demand for the solution”.
Those who cannot swallow capsules should instead open the capsule and dissolve the powder in a sweet drink, it recommended.