Technology to enable remote working, identification of key skills and supply chain disruption are among the areas IT leaders should be focusing on
US president George Bush last week announced a £4bn strategy to tackle a potential bird flu pandemic.
"If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare," he said.
Bush's remarks came as the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology completed a series of hearings into the dangers of a flu pandemic.
Among those giving evidence were deputy chief constable Alan Goodwin, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers Emergency Procedures Committee, Jim Norton, senior policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, and David Nabarro, senior United Nations system co-ordinator for avian and human influenza.
Nabarro said the government's emergency and business continuity planning should involve a higher-level minister than the health, agriculture and defence ministers currently involved.
Such statements suggest that the threat is not just tabloid hype and that IT leaders should ensure their organisations revisit their business continuity plans.
"I do not think businesses need to worry but certainly they need to plan. Now is a good time to be thinking coolly and logically about what the impact of a pandemic could be," said David Lloyd, technical adviser at business continuity group Survive.
IT could play a central role in enabling staff to work from home and allowing businesses to engage with customers online if a pandemic occurs and travel becomes difficult.
The Health Protection Agency's flu contingency plan estimates that in the UK a flu pandemic could kill 50,000 people and leave a quarter of the population having to take time off work. For an employer, this could mean absences from work tripling to between 5% and 7%, or in the worst case scenario 10% to 15%.
"A pandemic means you are going to lose some proportion of your staff in an unplanned way. The effect will be very sudden and unpredictable," said Lloyd.
It is important for businesses to research the risks thoroughly and understand the assumptions behind the government's plans. This means spending time reading and digesting the material published on the Health Protection Agency's website and assessing the risks to your particular business, he said.
IT departments will need to consider how reliant they are on the specialist knowledge of key staff, who might suddenly become unavailable.
"You have got to identify who those key staff are," said John Sharp, director of the Continuity Forum. "If you only have one or two, you have to ask whether they live in the same location - do they travel on the same route? If that is a problem, can you get alternative staff trained up or find interim staff from a different area? Make sure you have the skills or know where to find them."
Dion Wiggins, vice-president and research director at analyst firm Gartner, said firms should consider splitting key IT workers into shifts. This tactic was used by HSBC for its bank branch staff in Hong Kong during the Sars epidemic three years ago. It meant that should an employee catch Sars, only one team would need to go into quarantine.
Another option is to stock up on anti-viral drugs to protect key workers. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Roche said it had received orders from several firms for Tamiflu, which can prevent the onset of flu if taken in advance, or speed recovery times once a virus is contracted.
However, Roche said it would only supply the drug to firms that can demonstrate that they have properly controlled occupational health systems in place. There are strict controls on how the drug can be used.
Businesses are also likely to find themselves at the end of a long waiting list. Roche plans to give priority to orders from the NHS before supplying corporations.
Companies that go down this route will have to contend with other another difficult question - how do they decide who is a key worker?
"You get into real difficulties around how you are going to justify giving the treatment to some workers but not to others. You run into ethical problems," said Lloyd.
Technology can play a role in helping firms continue to operate if staff have to stay at home to look after relatives, or transport systems are disrupted. Allowing staff to work from home can also minimise the risk of infection, said Wiggins.
"A lot of people, especially in IT, are more than capable of working remotely, if the facilities are available to do so. People outside IT are also capable of working remotely, but you must have the infrastructure to support them," he said.
At the very least, said Wiggins, companies should make sure they have plans to connect key staff to broadband with secure virtual private network connections.
"You do not have to have a full-scale VPN prior to a virus occurring. You need to have a basic implementation available for people who need to work remotely. That gets the policy in place and a fundamental means of access. Then build in a plan to expand it if the need arises," he said.
Wiggins advised firms to consider placing contracts with suppliers to deliver laptop computers at short notice if staff are required to work remotely. Companies could also invest in technologies, such as Skype, that would allow them to set up teleconferencing systems quickly in the event of an emergency.
However, some commentators were sceptical about the value of sending staff home to work. Mike Thomson, principal analyst at Butler Group, pointed out that even if staff work at home, they will still be at risk of contracting flu through social contacts.
Graham Titterington, principal analyst at Ovum, said there was a limit to how long many staff can work remotely. "Most people who do not normally work from home have a good reason - it is because they cannot do the whole job from home."
Potential impact of a pandemic
- Disruption to international and local travel
- Schools in affected cities could close. Parents may have to stay at home to care for children
- Medical facilities could be overwhelmed
- Travel and hospitality sectors would be rapidly affected, with knock-on effects on other parts of the economy
- Supply chains could suffer disruption
- Widespread illness could result in staff shortages
- Limited travel and reduced spending would lead to an overall business slowdown
- Threat of disease could affect the behaviour of staff and reduce workforce productivity.
Sainsbury's prepares for possible flu pandemic
Sainsbury's is putting business continuity plans in place to prioritise the delivery of key products to its stores should a flu pandemic occur.
The retailer is concerned that an outbreak of avian flu, which could affect a significant proportion of the UK workforce, could lead to panic buying and shortages of staple foods.
"You are going to end up with major travel restrictions and school closures, and parents will be prioritising family. I suspect there may well be panic buying. And an organisation like Sainsbury's cannot wait for it to happen to consider what the consequences would be," said Steve Mellish, Sainsbury's head of business continuity in an interview earlier this year.
The supermarket has developed a risk log and identified mitigation strategies. It aims to work with suppliers to ensure that supplies of what it calls "bunker line" products, such as break, milk and baby food are not disrupted by an outbreak.
Studies by the firm show that in a worst case scenario Sainsbury's head office could function with 35% of its staff, provided they are rotated around different job functions.