H5N1 virus

No time for complacency on bird flu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2006, 12:00am


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Now is not too soon for companies to start preparing for a bird flu outbreak, according to businessman Nigel Thomas.

Reports last week that a cheap bird flu vaccine could be mass produced by next year by European drug company GlaxoSmithKline highlighted ongoing global concern about the deadly H5N1 strain. Thailand also reported its first outbreak in eight months last week, with a 17-year-old dying after catching the virus from a fighting cock in the country's north.

Mr Thomas said he established Continuity Business Solutions after attending 'answers' seminars for businesses on contingencies to cope with an outbreak which did not answer all his questions.

'I have attended a lot of the bird flu business continuity seminars and they all seem to miss the main point.

'They do drum home that bird flu or some sort of flu is coming and they warn of the panic we should expect including the high staff absenteeism rates which will follow, but that's it. The final message to the audience is to start preparing now, but we are left scratching our heads wondering how?' said Mr Thomas, who was responsible for setting up Hong Kong airport's emergency procedure manuals.

His company runs seminars and provides contingency plans that can be easily implemented and regularly tested for workability. They have hooked up with a management consultancy firm and specialist advisers to cover all aspects of preparing for an outbreak of bird flu and other influenza strains.

Mr Thomas said a lot of what they offer is based on commonsense, but the company also provides detailed advice and solutions that can be incorporated or added to existing strategies. For example, he suggests that starting now, all staff and management should conduct daily health and temperature checks before leaving home. This is to allow people to recognise the importance of good health care and put in place the possibility of limiting the spread of an illness.

He also says companies should start testing video-conferencing for meetings. They should also nominate a 'flu manager' and set up teams to oversee their contingency plans and put in place systems that allow staff to work from home.

Business partners, associates and clients crucial to a firm's operations should also be included in any contingency plan. Mr Thomas said regular drills are the only way to ensure employees are prepared and the contingency plans work.

Continuity Business Solutions offers an interactive half-day workshop, a do-it-yourself manual and training material for businesses and services for companies which need to out-source work.

According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the 2003 Sars outbreak saw the bottom line of 65 per cent of Hong Kong businesses suffer, with many companies going under.

A recent survey of Hong Kong business leaders at an American Chamber of Commerce seminar on business-continuity planning revealed that nearly 60 per cent of those polled had a clearly stated plan. The survey found that maintaining effective communications was considered most crucial. Respondents placed emphasis on remote-work access, internal communications and communications with customers.

Benny Lee, president of Tand berg Asia Pacific, which sells and designs video-conferencing equipment, said the technology was increasingly being seen as a necessary part of a bird flu contingency plan. Interest in the technology was coming from across Asia and the mainland, he said.

'In today's competitive and dynamic business environment, companies cannot afford any downtime. Many organisations have already put in place comprehensive measures to ensure their business can continue to operate in case of a crisis,' Mr Lee said.

But the equipment could not be installed and staff trained in its use overnight. 'Training sessions with live demonstrations and hands-on trials should be organised so users can familiarise themselves with the system and be less intimidated,' Mr Lee said.

Speaking at a conference held in May entitled 'Business continuity planning and disaster preparedness for avian influenza', Victor Fung Kwok-king, chairman of the Hong Kong Airport Authority and the Li & Fung Group, said that the business community needed to acknowledge that avian flu was a major issue for all companies.

'I think we need to address bird flu as another important business issue which will have serious consequences if we don't take appropriate measures. If you set up the mechanisms to handle this type of crisis, that same mechanism can help handle other crisis situations,' said Dr Fung.

Speaking at the same conference, Edward Laxton, regional vice-president of operations and systems for the American International Group, said business continuity planning for an avian flu outbreak did not necessarily need to be expensive.

Mr Laxton suggested that the preparation could involve things as simple as bringing staff together, asking questions and going through the continuity planning framework.

'We found business continuity tabletop exercises to be a very valuable way to train staff and identify where we had gaps in our plan,' said Mr Laxton.

John Allison, FedEx's vice-president for human resources in the Asia-Pacific, said small businesses, with limited resources should focus on the crucial parts of their operations.

'We operate in a mode where contingency plans are part of our life. We think the critical people inside our business are the account executives, couriers and call centre agents,' he said. 'In the event of a problem other positions will be quickly moved around to support those functions.'

What companies can do

1 Staff should be encouraged to take temperature checks before they leave for work

2 Set up a video-conferencing system

3 Where possible allow staff to work from home

4 Nominate a flu manager and select teams to oversee contingency plans

5 Regular drills will make sure everyone knows what to do