Coronavirus – What can we Learn from the 2009 Swine 'Flu Pandemic

Clearly the news from China over the last few days of the emergence and spread of Coronavirus has been very worrying.  The news today that patients in Scotland are being tested for Coronavirus make the threat all the more stark.  Reliable data on infection rates, and severity of the disease is impossible to come by at this early stage.  We therefore thought it might be instructive to look back at how the swine ‘flu pandemic played out in 2009 and draw lessons from that.

The swine ‘flu story broke in the UK in late April 2009 with the news of a serious outbreak of disease in Mexico and confirmation from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that this was a new strain of ‘flu.  By 1st May swine ‘flu was confirmed to have reached 12 countries in 3 different continents and the first death was reported outside of Mexico.  The WHO upped the alert state to Level 5, suggesting that a Pandemic is imminent.

In early June the WHO declared a global flu pandemic, due to the rapid increase in cases in the UK, Australia, Japan and Chile.  At this stage there were estimated to be 30 000 cases worldwide, with around 800 cases in the UK.  Perhaps most worringly, the number of cases in the UK was doubling each week; and continued to do so into July.

Up until that point we had still been working on planning assumptions prepared in 2007 in expectation of avian ‘flu.  Then, on the 16th of July, the UK Department of Health issued new planning assumptions, based on analysis and modelling of the most up to date data from the UK and abroad. The news was generally positive: in particular the estimated case-fatality rate was revised down to 0.1-0.35%.  However, the model still predicted that roughly 30% of the population will become ill at some stage.

As we now know, the pandemic did not pan out like that: the “first wave” of infections was peaking just as the guidance was issued, and the much-feared “second wave” was somewhat less intense.  The estimated total number of cases in England by the end of 2009 was between 500 000 and 1.5 million.  So the striking lesson from 2009 is that, even as more data on Coronavirus becomes available in the next few weeks, any epidemiological projections need to be treated with caution.

Even in the absence of accurate predictions about the progress of the disease, we can still apply some sound general principles to planning for potential business disruption; these include:

  • Identify any staffing bottlenecks and address as appropriate (eg by documenting procedures, cross-training staff and succession planning);
  • Be realistic about your capacity for homeworking: how will this limited capacity be prioritised?
  • Be prepared for schools and other public services shutting down to prevent the spread of disease; and
  • Review vulnerabilities in the supply chain and discuss contingencies with key suppliers.

Even if the current threat fails to materialise in the UK; time spent now on updating, testing and exercising contingency plans will not be wasted.  Follow the link to download a useful checklist for planning for public health emergencies.

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