News analysis: Employers divided on how to manage swine flu

As the threat of swine flu looms larger employers have been urged to make sure they are well equipped to manage a possible outbreak.

The threat-awareness level for swine flu currently stands at five out of a possible six. Many employers, however, have differing opinions about how much action is needed.

Some firms, such as the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and Taylor Made Computer Solutions, have gone as far as asking employees returning from high-risk areas to work from home incase they are infected and pose a risk to other colleagues. Other employers have even given staff a week’s paid leave if they have been on holiday to such an area.

At GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), employees have been told to take their work laptops home each evening in case the site should become infected. Furthermore, the pharmaceuticals firm is poised to administer its own Relenza immunising drug to all its staff and their dependents should it become necessary. A website has also been set up to inform staff about swine flu.

Harsha Modha, director, benefits programmes at GSK, said: “We are ready to distribute the vaccination to all our employees but are currently taking stock of the situation to see what happens next. We are also keen to ensure our [employee benefits] providers have a business contingency plan in place.”

Helene Gullen, commerical marketing manager at Unum, said employers have been proactive in checking that its plans and policies continue in the event of an emergency. “Our clients are interested to know whether their group life cover is still valid for people travelling to and from high-risk areas and if we’re imposing a catastrophe limit.”

While Unum is waiving its catastrophe limit should a pandemic be declared, Canada Life Group Insurance has reassured intermediaries that there would be no policy restrictions on overseas travel.

But Adrian Norris, managing director at Buck Consultants’ health and productivity division, said that some employers are dangerously apathetic due to a series of health scares that have not amounted to a serious threat.

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“We’ve had Sars, bird flu, and now we’ve got Mexican swine flu. I wonder whether there is an element of cynicism creeping in. Our clients didn’t really react to it and I don’t know a single organisation that have looked into buying Tamiflu. If anyone was taking it as seriously as some of the media, then they probably would be”, he said.

Lucy Thrussel, reward manager at Comet, said: “From a reward perspective it hasn’t affected us. Our health and safety department deals with it but has only had a few queries.”