As the tragedy of the Ebola epidemic continues to blight West Africa, the developed world has been reminded once again about the threat that diseases of epidemic proportion and pandemic potential pose in our globally connected world. It has also raised some complex questions in many organisations about exactly how they manage the realities and risks, both actual and perceived, of such disease threats in countries like the UK that have well-developed public health systems.
At first, the Ebola epidemic felt “remote” and there was little threat to us in the UK but then the nature of the disease (no vaccine, no cure) and the magnitude of the problem became clear. This was underpinned by the WHO declaring it an international health emergency in early August followed shortly by the volunteer nurse, William Pooley, contracting the virus and being flown back to the UK for treatment. Media stories fuelled fear that Ebola would “strike in the UK” and the public became sensitised to the threat. Gradually, government messaging began to hit home that the real risk of an Ebola pandemic was very low here because of the nature of viral transmission, high levels of personal hygiene in the UK and our developed public health system and levels of preparedness in the NHS.
The twist in the tail for organisations has not been managing an Ebola outbreak but actually managing those staff, colleagues or friends who have been out to Africa and returned to the UK and the workplace. Managing staff perception that someone who has been in Africa, might be infectious (even though highly unlikely) and could be sitting at the desk next to you has created a whole new level of complexity for the development of appropriate policies.
As was reported in The Metro just last week, a business in Plymouth faced a real challenge as they asked a member of staff, suspected of possibly having Ebola, to remain away from work for 21 days (the incubation period) to protect their other staff. A small storm arose in the media as to whether this action was fair, appropriate or legal.
A number of London businesses have faced similar quandaries; is it worth developing a whole “Ebola Plan” for a very low risk situation, does the Pandemic Plan cover Ebola (to which the answer is no in many cases) and do we need to do anything at all. What is an appropriate, fair and legal level of action to protect your staff versus stigmatising a member of staff because they may be at risk of developing Ebola.
The advice from Public Health England is that a person is not infectious until they display symptoms and should not be restricted in their movements whilst asymptomatic. Whilst this offers a clear position, it is all very well until the point at which your staff begins to raise objections to the potential risk they may be being subjected to if that member of staff comes to work during the incubation period. What will be their reaction and impact on the reputation of the organisation if the worst happens and the individual does develop symptoms?
All of this is about managing perception – that of the media, the public and your staff and, picking a careful route through the host of policy mazes and risky directives, should be undertaken with great care. It is currently less about developing a large and detailed plan and more about having a clear idea of what you are “saying” and to whom you are speaking in setting out your own policy and position. Looking from the “outside in” is our recommended approach, taking the view of those others and how they might perceive what you have said, even within their own biased or ignorant position. To assume true knowledge and understanding of the Ebola threat is to ignore the position of many and to risk missing some key messages. Like all these things, Ebola is an issue that must be addressed and recognised for the extraordinarily strong emotions it generates, even in normally rational and balanced people.
In light of some of the lessons learned from the current Ebola epidemic, we have updated our pandemic planning guidance with suggestions as to how organisations can improve their pandemic preparedness with a ‘prevent, respond, adapt’ approach to address the three key business considerations of:
· How can we protect our people?
· How would we respond to an infection outbreak?
· How do we need to adapt our business practices to continue
For regularly updated information on the current Ebola outbreak, click here.