Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-10-HSBC plans for bird flu staff crisis

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-10-HSBC plans for bird flu staff crisis

By Peter Griffiths and Steve Slater

LONDON (Reuters) - The world's third-biggest bank, HSBC, has drawn up plans to cope without up to half its staff if there is a pandemic triggered by bird flu, it said on Tuesday.

HSBC (HSBA.L: Quote, Profile, Research) said the potential absence of up to 50 percent of its staff did not relate to how many workers it expected to contract flu, but was a hypothetical number used for "worst case scenario" planning.

It included employees staying at home with flu, some with secondary infections and others absent to care for family or to avoid infection.

The Financial Times quoted HSBC's head of group crisis management, Bob Piggott, as saying several other banks were "moving towards" similar estimates for staff absences during any pandemic lasting up to three months.

"(Bird flu) is probably the single biggest challenge for the whole group," Piggott said in the paper. "None of us knows the virulence of the virus, but I would rather be prepared for the worst."

HSBC's statement added: "Fortunately, our scale means that we have the necessary resources to maintain a reasonable level of service even in the face of very serious threats. To that end, we have been planning how to change working practices to respond to a possible pandemic."

CONTINGENCY PLAN

The H5N1 strain of flu has killed at least 74 people in China and southeast Asia since 2003, but an outbreak in Turkey has marked a shift westwards to the edge of Europe.

Turkey said on Monday 14 people had been confirmed with bird flu infections and that three of them, all children, had died.

Last month, European Union health experts estimated a bird flu pandemic could result in 25 percent of Europe's workforce being on sick leave.

"While we have no reason to disbelieve the World Health Organisation guidelines on bird flu, it is entirely proper that we prepare for any contingency," HSBC's statement said.

Piggott said HSBC, which employs more than 250,000 in 77 countries, had devised plans to increase working from home and other ways to get over the impact of a pandemic.

While the WHO says there is no evidence so far of human-to-human transmission, some experts fear the H5N1 strain will evolve to allow it to pass from person to person.

If it does, it could cause a pandemic killing tens of millions of people, because humans lack immunity to it.

A loss of 50 percent of a company's staff would be far higher than official British government estimates of the likely absentee level.

Bruce Mann, head of the government's Civil Contingencies Secretariat, said in November that companies should expect 5 to 7 per cent of their workforce to be absent at the peak of the pandemic, with a cumulative total of 25 per cent affected over a period of three or four months.

Understanding Avian Influenza