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Coronavirus in New Zealand: What employers and employees should know

By Tracy Grant | January 29, 2020

How can you protect your employees & business in the face of this escalating issue? Information, caution & preparation are vital.
Pandemic Risk and Response

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that include the common cold, and viruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which both caused global public health emergencies. Novel Coronavirus (also called 2019-nCoV) is a new strain of coronavirus affecting humans.

Health authorities globally are on alert; to date 2019-nCov has led to 131 deaths around the globe. Doctors warn it has no cure or vaccine.

About the coronavirus

The initial outbreak of 2019-nCov, which causes flu-like symptoms and severe pneumonias, centred around an animal market, in Wuhan City, China, though there has now been transmission from person to person (including medical personnel) since the initial reports. Authorities currently estimate more than 5000 cases at the time of writing.

What precautions can be taken?

New Zealand authorities have set up a National Health Coordination Centre and, with five confirmed cases in Australia, screening of trans-Tasman flights is under consideration, according to the New Zealand Herald.

News reports also indicate passengers arriving in Auckland and Christchurch from China are being assessed. The last time border screening was in place in New Zealand was 2009, during the swine flu outbreak.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has reiterated precautions laid down by the World Health Organisation:

  • Avoid close contact with people suffering acute respiratory infections.
  • Wash hands frequently, especially after contact with ill people or their environment.
  • Avoid close contact with sick farm animals or wild animals.
  • People with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practice cough etiquette:
    • maintain distance
    • cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing
    • wash hands.

Travellers who become sick within a month of their arrival are encouraged to seek medical advice and contact Healthline (for free) on 0800 611 116 or a doctor.

It is important to mention recent travel to Wuhan and any known contact with someone with severe acute respiratory illness who has been in Wuhan.


Determining organisational preparedness

Is your organisation prepared for this outbreak? Consider the following:

  • Review current human resources policies and procedures in reference to communicable disease management.
  • Place educational posters in key areas and provide hand gels, tissues, etc.
  • Review internal and external communication measures. Communication is critical to ensure everyone knows what is happening, reduce anxiety and continue business operations.
  • Consider information and advisories via hotlines, websites or text message system alerts.
  • If you do not have a business continuity plan (BCP) in place for communicable disease or have not reviewed recently, now is the time to do so.

Practice BCP plan implementation

Your organisation will mitigate risk and can gain competitive advantage by having strong processes in place to address a public health emergency.

Your response plans must be ingrained in your thinking and be ready to implement on a moment’s notice.

Explain to employees when you perform a planned exercise that it is not a test, since a test implies something you either pass or fail. Here, the emphasis is on practicing and learning, remembering that we all learn more from participatory education than from lectures.

Consider several types of exercises and training steps, potentially using different modalities for different groups of employees.

  • Web-based training, where employees complete a computer-based learning module and successfully answer questions to achieve a certificate.
  • An informal orientation that lasts about an hour is one way to educate personnel on the function and processes of the plan.
  • In a tabletop exercise, staff reviews and discusses the actions they would take, but no one actually performs any of these actions. This may take two to four hours.
  • A functional exercise simulates a scenario as realistically as possible without moving personnel, equipment and resources to the actual backup sites. This may take four to six hours.
  • In a full-scale exercise, personnel, equipment and resources are deployed to specific locations for a real-time simulation of a scenario. This can last six to eight hours. This requires the most investment of resources, but immersive learning is most effective.

BCPs should include regular review, both during and after an actual event. For example, if employees become exposed to this virus at the workplace, a review should focus on what could have been done better to prepare and respond. Hold a critique post-event so you can be better prepared for the next disruption.

Healthcare providers

Healthcare providers should refer to the information provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Health in relation to 2019-nCov.

Additional information

The information contained in this document is current as at January 29 2020. Willis Towers Watson will continue to provide new blog posts as the current coronavirus situation unfolds.


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