Ilan Kelman: Should employers be preparing now for further waves of the Covid-19 virus?

Ilan Kelman: Are employers preparing now for further waves of the Covid-19 virus?

Lockdown in the UK for over two months has saved thousands of lives, while imposing a heavy burden on employers and employees. Imagine this situation as an irregular cycle. Who is preparing and can we actually prepare?

To avoid repeating the horror of tens of thousands of deaths from Covid-19 (Coronavirus), as well as the suffering from redundancies or being stuck in difficult home situations, we must balance work opportunities with stopping the virus. The latter, without a vaccine or treatment, is currently achieved mainly through hygiene and keeping our distance from others.

Employers need to consider workplaces with more space, fewer people and increased cleaning, including hand-washing opportunities. All incur costs. Balancing increased ventilation with more physical barriers, from plastic shields to walls, can mean creative design. It might not be possible in workplaces such as factories or construction sites, and often cannot be implemented swiftly.

Part of the solution for some jobs is working from home, but not all employees can or want to. Again, there are costs for setting up home offices, from internet connectivity to adequate computers and for ensuring information confidentiality, and protection of data and equipment.

Working from home helps to lower the number of people on public transportation, preventing Coronavirus from spreading. Staggering working hours and days could reduce the jam-packed peak periods when attempting physical distancing is futile. Many employees cannot work flexible hours due to caring responsibilities and work-life balance.

Jobs requiring in-person teams can be challenging for keeping people apart. Many service and sales industries thrive on person-to-person direct contact with customers. Aeroplane travel, haircutting and dentistry are effectively impossible without close proximity to strangers. Arts, sports, training and education earn substantial income from remote viewers, yet plenty of appeal remains through in-person audiences.

So employers with the scope to consider longer-term alterations and various contingencies are preparing for the possibility of multiple lockdowns through creativity and flexibility. Some can implement measures which will become the standard, such as shops with outdoor queues and fewer checkouts, and perhaps even extended hours, especially on Sundays and holidays, also boosting employment opportunities. Many desk jobs, whether call centres or financial administration, will end up at home, although someone will need to bear the cost.

The tourism and hospitality industry, including restaurants and pubs, could adjust their business plan to factor in long closure periods. Or fewer customers paying higher prices. Some might eliminate buffets and common guest areas. Face coverings, and learning to use them properly, could be mandatory for employees and customers.

Many, especially small owner-operated organisations, lack resources, experience, or time to prepare for wholescale and continuing operational adjustments. They require the most support to ensure that they continue as community fixtures, serving customers without risking infections.

Preparing for more Coronavirus waves is not easy. We need to start now.

Dr Ilan Kelman is a professor of disasters and health at University College London, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. 

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