Coming so soon after the disruption of Brexit, the effects of Coronavirus on business are particularly unwelcome. What can we do here in Portsmouth to protect our businesses and our staff as we inevitably see an increase in local cases?
TLDR: There is government assistance. You are unlikely to be insured. Plan to enable Homeworking - safely. If unable to work you can volunteer with HIVE Portsmouth.
The Shaping Portsmouth Business and Enterprise team have focused on business continuity and resilience. For a medical perspective it is important to follow the up to date advice from Public Health England found here.
If staff members do begin to show symptoms whilst in the workplace then the current advice is that they should be separated from the workforce and sent home immediately. There they should isolate themselves for 7 days and call the 111 number if necessary. Colleagues should assess their risk of exposure and if necessary, return home to self isolate.
This self isolation is vital. The Centre for Disease Control says “Symptoms of 2019 nCov may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 after exposure”. Your colleagues should not attempt to visit QA Hospital, their local GP or the St Mary’s Urgent Treatment Centre if they have any symptoms of Coronavirus.
For many smaller businesses, the self isolation of just one or two key members of staff could be enough to cause serious cashflow issues. Smaller businesses often have very few weeks or even days resilience to a lack of revenue.
Larger businesses have been advised to prepare for up to 40% of the workforce being absent at any given time in the next few months.
It is also important to monitor the effect on your supply chains. The original rise of cases in China affected the global supply chain of many goods and has already had a massive effect on the manufacture of high tech, automobiles and toys.
On Tues March the Chancellor of the Exchequer used a £330bn warchest to launch a number of grants, loans and other schemes designed to ease the burden on business. Details will be forthcoming over the coming days for how your business can apply.
Statutory sick pay has been extended so that it can be claimed from day 1 rather than day 4. The business pays the employee and then this sum can be reclaimed from the government.
How can we prepare our workplace?
Following the advice of Public Health England you should provide the opportunity for staff and customers to wash or sanitise their hands after going out in public and particularly after touching shared surfaces.
Regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces will kill any lingering virus which may have been expelled by those who are asymptomatic. If possible at your location you could also try to ensure that interactions can take place at an increased distance. Current belief is that the disease is typically spread when people are within 6 feet of each other. It has been stated that the virus does not survive well in the open air although there are some who dispute this.
What about insurance?
Insurance cover will of course depend on the detail within the policy. The diseases covered for business insurance are usually listed within the policy documentation. The problem is that CoVid-19 is a new strain of Coronavirus and as such it is not going to be on the list. Some policy extensions may cover any government-defined ‘notifiable’ disease.
We reached out to Wesley Haynes of local insurance broker Glowsure, “At present the market stance is the virus is not covered within a commercial insurance policy, this is due to the virus being new. If and when the government change the status to a notifiable disease, insurers may change their position.”
STOP PRESS - The UK government made Coronavirus (COVID-19) a notifiable disease on 5th March. You should check your policy to see if notifable diseases are included within your specific policy.
This is the current (19th March) Government advice on insurance claims
Businesses that have cover for both pandemics and government-ordered closure should be covered, as the government and insurance industry confirmed on 17 March 2020 that advice to avoid pubs, theatres etc is sufficient to make a claim.
Insurance policies differ significantly, so businesses are encouraged to check the terms and conditions of their specific policy and contact their providers. Most businesses are unlikely to be covered, as standard business interruption insurance policies are dependent on damage to property and will exclude pandemics.
What might be the effects on our staff
Always advise staff that in the event of them displaying symptoms to call 111 rather than attending the Emergency Department at QA, the Urgent Treatment Centre at St Mary’s or your own GP office.
Those staff members who self isolate and live in one of Portsmouth’s many managed apartment blocks may also need to notify the management agent who will arrange for specific cleaning of shared doors, handles, bannisters and so on.
Be aware that the family members of your staff, particularly those with school-age children, might mean that your workers have to take on care duties that might mean they struggle to work to their usual capacity. You should also be aware of the possible mental effects on your staff of the disease affecting friends and family.
You may also want to weigh up the impact on higher risk employees - those who have underlying medical issues or are older than 60 years old. For some businesses this will have to be measured against the needs of the local community.
Considerations for homeworking
We asked Jill Farmer from Portsmouth based Workwise Ergonomics for some advice on setting up a new homeworking capability.
- Most people are quite capable of working from home for a short period. Prioritise assisting your staff that you know may have existing difficulties such as aches, pains, eyesight problems and other disabilities.
- Tell your staff that you are working on keeping everyone safe, comfortable and productive. Make it clear however that you need them to tell you if they are struggling in any way. Health and Safety is always a two way responsibility.
- Check the technology before you have to rely on it. Laptops are great for mobility and short periods but over a longer term you may need to consider additional keyboards, mice and screens.
- Remind your staff to keep moving and that they can use comfy pillows or cushions from home to recreate the extra comfort of most office furniture.
Building a plan
Constructing a flexible plan as to how the business will cope with the lower staff levels is crucial. If your business doesn’t have such plans then the best time to start is now.
- Ensure the plan is flexible and involve your employees in developing and reviewing your plan.
- Conduct a focused discussion or exercise using your plan, to find out ahead of time whether the plan has gaps or problems that need to be corrected.
- Share your plan with employees and explain what human resources policies, workplace and leave flexibilities, and pay and benefits will be available to them.
- Share best practices with other businesses in your communities (especially those in your supply chain) to improve overall community response efforts.
Volunteering to help
There are a number of Portsmouth based volunteer initiatives that are springing up in response to the virus. The hope is that these can be co-ordinated via HIVE Portsmouth, the organisation that delivers community projects and advice, based at the Portsmouth Central Library.
Keeping some perspective
Whilst Coronavirus is patently not a good news story, it is important to keep some perspective. Some of these points should demonstrate that there is still hope!
- We know what the virus is - Covid 19 was identified within a week. It took two years to identify the AIDS virus during which time we could not identify causes or cures.
- We can detect the virus. A test was developed as early as January 13th
- China contained the outbreak fairly well, preventing a very fast outbreak.
- 80% of cases are mild and children seem relatively unaffected.
- Once cured, people heal. The proportion who get better is also increasing as we get better at treating the symptoms.
- The virus can be stopped by soap, ethanol or bleach making it relatively easy to clean.
- The global scientific community was working on it immediately. There are candidate vaccines and antiviral trials are already underway. These might take a year to get approved for use.
What could be the long term effects?
Nobody knows how long the virus will be prevalent. Seasonal flu sees a decline in new cases with the onset of warmer weather, although the growth in cases of COVID-19 in warmer climes seems to suggest this may not occur this time.
Previous major epidemics have changed social history. Whether it is cholera in London leading to the development of Bazalgette’s sewer system or SARS in Singapore leading to the decentralisation of health services. This time, the epidemic is being played out in full gaze of our digital services, and it is in changes to those services that we might find our legacy.
The aggregation of epidemiological data as seen in the John Hopkins global cases dashboard seems to point to a future for disease control and risk reduction through information as much as by inoculation.
Further advice is available from the following sources