IT planning vital to meet bird flu pandemic threat

IT departments should step up their planning for a flu pandemic that could disrupt transport systems, supply chains, and leave large sections of the workforce unable to reach the office.

IT departments should step up their planning for a flu pandemic that could disrupt transport systems, supply chains, and leave large sections of the workforce unable to reach the office.

Business groups, including the CBI, the Institute of Directors, and business continuity organisation Survive, said it was important for businesses to plan for a pandemic that could infect a quarter of the population.

They advised firms to exploit IT to enable staff to work from home and to communicate electronically with customers and suppliers if transport is disrupted, offices are quarantined, or staff are forced to stay at home.

The government said it had no plans to issue advice to businesses at this stage, but some larger firms have confirmed they are planning for a possible flu pandemic.

Gartner analyst Dion Wiggins said it was imperative companies start planning for a potential outbreak and look at ways they could use IT to help their businesses continue to function.

The experience of the Sars outbreak in Hong Kong and Vietnam two years ago showed that the public would be reluctant or unable to travel into work if a major pandemic occurred. "The streets were deserted," Wiggins said.

He advised companies to consider signing contracts to ship in laptops for staff at short notice, and to provide them with secure virtual private network connections to access office systems.

Firms that are heavily reliant on their IT departments should split key IT staff into shifts, so that if staff in one shift had to go into quarantine, key staff in another shift are available to continue working, said Wiggins. This tactic was used by global bank HSBC during the Sars outbreak.

Businesses should also make sure key suppliers have contingency plans in place, said Wiggins. "You should be asking what their contingency plans are for dealing with this. If you are doing offshore outsourcing, business continuity plans should be your key criteria," he said.

Jeremy Beale, head of e-business at the CBI, and Jim Norton, senior policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, said businesses that invest in broadband and e-commerce technologies would be better placed to cope with a pandemic.

"These are the sorts of things that businesses should be doing anyway," said Norton.

Supermarket chain Sainsbury's said it was putting plans in place to ensure deliveries of staple foods, such as milk, bread and baby food, if a pandemic disrupts supply chains.

Oil company Shell said it had produced guidelines requiring its operations in each country to put contingency plans in place, and it was making information on the risks available to staff.

Pharmaceuticals firm Roche said it had received orders from companies wanting to issue its anti-viral drug Tamiflu to staff in the event of an outbreak.

Business continuity experts said a flu pandemic could cause far more disruption to businesses than the last major flu outbreak in 1968, when businesses were less dependent on a small number of staff with key skills and the smooth running of the transport system for just-in-time deliveries.

"We are much more highly automated. That ought to make us less reliant on people, but the opposite is the case. We have a dependency on a few highly skilled individuals. The effect of a pandemic will be very sudden and unpredictable," said David Lloyd, technical adviser at Survive.

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