UK firms are warned 20% of staff could be off with virus

by BLOOMBERG / pic by BLOOMBERG

British businesses were warned as many as 20% of their workers could be forced to take time off during peak periods of infection if the U.K. is hit by a widespread outbreak of coronavirus.

The U.K. government published its plan for dealing with the disease on Tuesday, including an estimate that in a worst case scenario a fifth of the workforce — more than 6 million people — could be absent. This would have knock-on effects, as others would be forced to take time off to care for those who are ill, or to look after children if schools were closed. Such a peak period of infection would be likely to last around three weeks, the government said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (picture) unveiled a package of emergency measures to tackle coronavirus on Tuesday after he was criticized for not doing enough to prepare for the spread of the disease. He said he was ready to close schools and cancel public events, though health officials are uncertain whether either move would be necessary.

“I fully understand public concern, your concern about the global spread of the virus and it is highly likely we will see a growing number of U.K. cases,” Johnson said at a news conference in London. The government is preparing for “all eventualities”, he said. “Keeping the country safe is ouroverriding priority.”

He appeared alongside Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and lead science adviser Patrick Vallance at a news conference to announce his plans.

The plan, which has been drawn up with devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, set out measures to slow transmission of the disease, which has so far been confirmed in 39 U.K. patients.

The current focus is on trying to contain the disease in the U.K., to delay the moment of peak infection until the summer, when the National Health Service is usually less busy than in colder months.

Measures announced so far include:

  • Plans to bring health-care professionals out of retirement to treat the sick
  • Relaxing rules on class sizes to allow schools to stay open if teachers become ill
  • Truckers would also be allowed to work longer hours to make sure vital drugs can move around the country
  • Airlines have to declare that their passengers are all healthy before they can land in the U.K.

Emergency laws will be introduced to the House of Commons later this month to give the government powers it says it needs to tackle an outbreak. Ministers plan to fast track the legislation through Parliament so it will be in place before the number of cases peaks.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will include financial support for public health efforts in his budget next week, the Treasury said, and his office is working with the Bank of England to respond to the threat to the U.K. economy from the continued spread of the virus.

“We are taking firm action to support your families, your businesses and the public services on which you rely,” Sunak said in an email. “We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed.”

The government said businesses struggling as a result of the disease could apply for more time to pay their taxes.