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Panic is the real virus

11 March 2020

It was only a matter of time before the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak hit our shores.

Less than a month ago I wrote about how employers could deal with issues of whether employees could be kept home from work out of suspicion of contracting the disease or to ensure they undertake the required self-isolation. That legal guidance still remains relevant.

Since I wrote that column, the situation has changed dramatically. The virus has a new name - Covid-19, the number of confirmed cases has doubled, and cases have been diagnosed across the world including New Zealand.

Another noticeable difference has also occurred - panic and fear that has set in.

When the first New Zealand case was confirmed in late February, there were reports of lines at supermarkets, with some Auckland supermarkets being forced to restrict entry due to the high numbers of shoppers.

Readers around New Zealand may have seen the impact of the panic themselves, as shoppers stocked up on tissues, toilet paper, soap and canned goods.

This panic has no doubt spread to businesses. The scale and spread of the disease has certainly cast the need for business continuity plans into the spotlight, particularly given the health and safety obligations placed on employers in legislation and common law.

There are a number of ways that the virus has impacted on businesses' operations.

One key element of the impact is the reliance of many businesses on China. Many New Zealand universities have called on the Government to make exemptions to the travel bans on China to allow international students to study here. Victoria University has told the media that it was working through a redundancy process to address the impact on the university.

Another element of the impact is the uncertainty created by the constantly evolving situation.

The conference for the World Organisation of Family Doctors, which was due to be held in Auckland in late April, was recently postponed. The board members made the decision based on the uncertainty created by coronavirus, explaining that the organisers "couldn't responsibly have so many primary care professionals out of circulation in late April, even for a short time, in light of the evolving situation with Covid-19."

Now the virus has reached New Zealand, businesses can be severely impacted by widespread isolation of their staff, or worse, widespread sickness.

Some businesses have begun to implement plans for situations where a large proportion of the staff were forced to work from home - either for isolation purposes or as a result of a general office closure. For example, about 200 staff of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council worked from home on Wednesday last week to test how the organisation would respond if coronavirus hit the region.

Consider your own workplace. If you contracted the disease tomorrow, would you be able to continue working? Has your employer set up processes for that? Ask them.

Or if you manage staff - have you considered how you would respond to this issue?

The matter isn't as simple as just giving staff access to the company's systems from their home. The employer's health and safety obligations apply regardless of where the employee is working, and given the circumstances, the employer would need to ensure it was monitoring and actively managing hazards that could emerge for employees working from home.

We don't anticipate WorkSafe focusing on the penal provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act. It is more likely that WorkSafe will concentrate on their ability to help and guide employers to cope with this unexpected and dramatic outbreak.

In fact, WorkSafe policies provide for an expectation that a lower level of enforcement will be appropriate in situations where there is very little information or specific guidance available to assist the duty holder to manage risks effectively.

We are blessed in New Zealand with an abundance of sound advice, with regular updates and guidance being released by WorkSafe, Ministry of Health and MFAT, for travellers. Employers, and society generally, should heed the advice from these organisations rather than acting on fear and panic.

To this end, it's a good idea to have clear policies or practices in place in advance, guided by the official information, to both prevent and address contracting the virus.

While no one could have predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, perhaps it's also a timely reminder of the consequences of globalisation and the need to look ahead. The global economy is getting more interconnected, and global tourism is growing, and the coronavirus is unlikely to be the last global disease outbreak.

Perhaps a bit more foresight and preparation could have stemmed the panic currently seizing New Zealand.

I agree with the voices emerging around New Zealand that the panic about coronavirus is almost worse than the virus itself. We are not living in London in 1350 trying to survive the Black Plague. The virus is undoubtably of concern, but the best approach is to be prepared, follow official advice, and not to panic.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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