Tuesday 3 March 2020 10:34 am

UK coronavirus battle plan: Businesses warned that a fifth of workforce could be absent

Up to a fifth of the UK’s workforce could be made absent by coronavirus during its peak weeks, the government warned as part of its action plan published today. 

Downing Street is bracing itself for a reasonable worst-case scenario, warning that it is “more likely than not that the UK will be significantly affected”. Up to one per cent of infected people could die from coronavirus, with authorities saying 80 per cent of the country could be infected at the most.

For the vast majority of people, the symptoms will be mild or may not even show at all. A minority of people may require hospital treatment for related illnesses, most likely pneumonia.

Under the four-point plan – contain, delay, research and mitigate – the government estimates that up to a fifth of the workforce being absent at the peak of the outbreak.

Measures that will be deployed at this point include closing schools, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large scale gatherings. It is thought this could last for around 12 weeks in order to fully mitigate the spread of coronavirus, while ensuring the country’s ability to continue to run as normally as possible

Medical authorities including the chief medical officer Chris Witty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance urged businesses not to act yet, warning that a knee-jerk reaction would cause social disruption with limited benefit to stopping the spread of the disease.

The peak is thought to be nine-to-10 weeks away, and then last for up to three months, based on current modelling.

The action plan, revealed this morning by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said: “The current data seem to show that we are all susceptible to catching this disease, and thus it is also more likely than not that the UK will be significantly affected.” 

Johnson said: “I fully understand the public’s concerns about the global spread of this virus, and it is likely to become more significant in the coming weeks.

“But keeping the country safe is our overriding priority and today’s plan means we are committed to doing everything possible – based on the advice of our world-leading scientific experts –  to prepare for all eventualities.

“We will make sure the NHS gets all the support it needs to continue their brilliant response to the virus so far.

“Crucially, we must also not forget what we can all do to fight this virus – which is to wash our hands with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.

“It’s simple advice but it’s the single most important thing we can all do.”

The action plan also revealed measures that the government has in the wings to prevent public disorder in the worst-case scenario.

Police may have to focus on responding to only the most serious crimes and maintaining public order if the virus spreads in a worst-case scenario.

And the army may be put on standby to provide emergency services.

Among the measures that will be deployed once the outbreak is deemed to be at its peak are:

  • Closing schools
  • Encouraging greater home working
  • Discouraging people from using public transport like the Tube
  • Reducing the number of large scale gatherings

It is thought such measures could last for around 12 weeks in order to fully mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

The government will try to balance the plan with ensuring the country’s ability to continue to run as normally as possible.

The coronavirus disease appears to be rarer in people under 20, but schools may be closed as part of containment measures.

The government is hoping to slow the disease until the warmer months, when the NHS is under less pressure from usual seasonal illnesses. That would allow the government “to buy time” for doctors to test medicines and vaccines. 

“Everyone will face increased pressures at work, as well as potentially their own personal illness or caring responsibilities,” the PM’s coronavirus plan said. Supporting staff welfare will be critical to supporting an extended response.”

Increasingly estimate numbers are coming down, the government added.

Authorities are not currently recommending that companies impose working from home measures, noting that the disease is still not yet widespread in the UK.

The government said imposing remote working measures could result in relative disruption with little benefit.

The same is true of school closures. However, it is thought school closures could be nine to 10 weeks away, and last for up to three months.