The emergence of infectious diseases with the potential to cause untold human suffering and economic disaster has been foretold by scientists for some time. The COVID-19 epidemic – which was first reported in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31, 2019 – has spread dramatically and businesses are directly and indirectly faced by what is fast becoming a global crisis.
There is no doubt that, in addition to loss of life, pandemics devastate economies. According to the World Health Organization the estimated costs of past events include: a loss of over US $40 billion in productivity from the 2003 SARS epidemic; US$53 billion loss from the economic and social impact of the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak; and the US$ 45 to 55 billion cost of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic.
This guideline produced by PKF Octagon sets out a risk response for businesses to the pandemic and provides practical advice on how to manage the organisation through this period of uncertainty.
What you need to know about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold. COVID-19 has been transferred from bats to humans and, as a respiratory illness, is spreading rapidly from person to person. The incubation period of COVID-19 is between 2 to 14 days and a person who may have become infected is likely to develop the following symptoms after exposure to someone who has COVID-19 infection:
- difficulty in breathing (shortness of breath)
People with weakened immune systems, the elderly and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease run a higher risk of severe symptoms when infected.
How does COVID-19 spread?
The spread of COVID-19 is most likely to happen when there is close contact (within 2 metres or less) with an infected person. It is likely that the risk increases the longer someone has close contact with an infected person. When an infected person coughs or sneezes the respiratory secretions produced are most likely to be the main means of transmission.
Typically the virus can be spread in one of two ways:
- infection can be spread to people who are nearby (within 2 metres) or possibly could be inhaled into the lungs.
- it is also possible that someone may become infected by touching a surface, object or the hand of an infected person that has been contaminated with respiratory secretions and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes (such as touching door knob or shaking hands then touching own face)
Preventing the spread of COVID-19
Public Health England (PHE) recommends that the following precautions are taken to help prevent people from catching and spreading COVID-19:
- wash your hands more often than usual, for 20 seconds each time with soap and water or hand sanitiser, especially when you:
- get home or into work
- blow your nose, sneeze or cough
- eat or handle food
- avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
- avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
Human resource planning
Due to the nature of a pandemic the effects on the workplace could last for months. As a starting point it is important to work with risk management and each business operation to determine which roles are necessary for the organization to function. The following should be undertaken:
- Identify key business functions (mission critical) and how these will be impacted by absenteeism.
- Prioritise customer and contract relationships that need to be maintained.
- Identify key roles, activities and skill sets that cannot be suspended for a short or extended time without material damage to the business.
- Build operational resilience in critical areas and consider distributing essential roles and functions across multiple locations if possible.
- Posters and communication should encourage staying at home when sick and should provide guidance about etiquette when coughing and sneezing. In addition hand hygiene advice should be placed in strategic places where it is likely to be seen.
- Consider providing tissues and non-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees in accessible places. Encourage employees to wash their hands regularly and provide alcohol-based hand rubs in addition to soap in the workplace.
- Implement social distancing measures by increasing physical space between workers at the worksite, potentially staggering work schedules and decreasing social contacts in the workplace (e.g., limit in-person meetings and meeting for lunch in a break room). Direct or close contact (closer than 2 metres) with any potentially infected person should be avoided.
- Consideration should be given to limiting large work-related gatherings (staff meetings and after-work functions). If infections become more prevalent in the community consider regular health checks (e.g., temperature and respiratory symptom screening) of staff and visitors entering buildings (if feasible).
From a human resource perspective, the organization should be able to answer the following questions to give stakeholders confidence:
- Are employees cross-trained and able to perform multiple duties if high absenteeism is experienced?
- To what extent are employees able to work remotely?
- What would be required to enable employees to work from home?
- To what extent will the company monitor, or restrict, foreign travel?
- What procedures does the company have in place to decontaminate air-conditioning systems, working surfaces, electronic equipment and all potentially high-contact areas such as toilets, door handles and telephones?
- What needs to be done to ensure that employees feel safe in the workplace?
- What escalating procedures have been put in place to obtain additional resources if required?
- If the government
- Have crisis-management team members been trained to deal with concerns and suspected infections?
Employers should implement the following strategies as far as sick employees are concerned:
- Actively encourage sick employees to remain at home. Employees who show symptoms of acute respiratory illness should not return to work unless they are free of any sign of fever and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours without using any fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medication.
- Ensure that employees are aware of the sick leave policies in the organisation and attempt to employee a flexible approach to dealing with working arrangements.
- Interact with any provider of temporary or contract employees to ensure that they apply the same principles in dealing with sick employees.
- Employees should be aware that employees may need to be absent from the workplace to take care of sick children or family members and that leave policies should be flexible enough to cater for this.
- Separation of sick employees. Employees who appear to have acute respiratory symptoms upon arrival at work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. The Centre for Communicative Diseases recommends consideration be given to 7-day leave policies for people with COVID-19 symptoms.
- Access to treatment. Employees need to be informed of the treatment centres identified by government and be encouraged to visit a doctor as soon as a possible infection is suspected to get treatment. Employees should call their doctor or the COVID-19 hotline ( 0800 029 999 ) for guidance if they suspect they have been exposed to the virus.
Businesses when faced with threats like the COVID-19 stand a much better chance of surviving and recovering when management is prepared to address the risks. The following should be considered:
- Establish clear protocols and business continuity plans to deal with emergencies. Assign specific individuals in advance to address inevitable issues related to an outbreak and empower them to act in accordance with the protocols established.
- A clearly defined risk management plan and develop risk registers with action plans to address risk areas that require attention. In particular the levels of impact to departments and internal stakeholder groups and their importance to business-critical functions should be established.
- Assess the potential impact to customer-facing and internal business operations and define alternative options.
- Assess the impact of suppliers on the operations. The resilience of the workforce in other countries and particularly countries where enforced quarantine has been implemented should be evaluated. Risk assessments should be conducted to determine the impact and likelihood of supply chain interruptions and contingency plans should be developed.
- It is important for the business to take a decision on the level of customer experience that you wish to deliver to your clients before, during and after business disruptions and develop contingency plans accordingly.
- Review your legal exposure with regard to the duty of care and obligation to ensuring a healthy working environment toward your employees, customers and visitors. In addition customer and supplier contracts should be reviewed to determine potential liability and plans to mitigate risk should be developed.
- Forecast the potential impact of COVID-19 on your sales and opportunity pipeline. In addition plans should be developed for alternative client engagement if the current model is based on a high level of in-person engagement.
- Marketing plans to be forwarded to customers and all stakeholders should be developed providing clear information to manage customer expectations and ensure all stakeholders are kept up to date.
- The potential effect on revenue, cash flow and transaction processing (including accounts receivable) should be undertake to ensure sufficient banking facilities are put in place.
- The technology arrangements are to be revalued to consider how best to support employees to make alternative working arrangements.
Business Continuity Planning
Do not underestimate the time it takes to plan for disruptions. It is critical that business continuity plans are not just developed but that they are practiced. Roundtables or simulations are invaluable to verify activation protocols for different phases of response (contingency planning only, full-scale response, other). It is important to test communication protocols and functioning of core functions whilst operating with minimum employees.
According to McKinsey clarity on decision owner (ideally a single leader), roles for each top-team member, “elephant in room” that may slow response, actions and investment needed to carry out the plan should be clearly defined. Consideration should also be given to providing teams the opportunity to work from home and to gauge the impact on operations.
PKF Octagon Advisory
Our specialist advisors are able to offer expert risk management and business continuity planning advice and support. We will provide guidance and implement solutions to ensure your business is able to withstand the challenge of the COVID-19 epidemic and to comply with good corporate governance standards. We are focused on implementing practical robust solutions that will have long-lasting benefits for your organization. Contact us to discuss how we can support you.
Prepared by Christopher Whittle: Risk Advisory, PKF Octagon
 A World at Risk. Annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies Global Preparedness Monitoring Board 2019 p.13.
 Center for Disease Control. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary. March 2020.
 HM Government. Guidance. COVID-19: guidance for employers and businesses. 10 March 2020.
 HM Government. Public health matters.
 Gardner. 10 Questions for an HR Pandemic plan. Feb.2020.
 Center for Disease Control. cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community-mitigation-strategy.pdf
 Jabian LLC. 2020.
 McKinsey & Company. COVID-19: Briefing note, March 9, 2020.