I Work In Brighton. We’ve Been Left In The Dark About Coronavirus

What will happen if my employees become ill or the city is quarantined? The government’s silence is deafening, writes Darren Burn.

“There are people in hazmats at the university now”.

That was the message I got from a friend studying at Sussex University on Monday. Suddenly coronavirus, a plausibly deniable crisis in distant China, felt very real. By Tuesday, two GP surgery branches had been closed in the city.

As a business owner in Brighton my first thought turned to what would happen should Brighton turn into an emergency situation like Wuhan, where public transport has been shut down and people are advised to isolate themselves. Admittedly, that might seem a little extreme. But no longer was coronavirus something that was thousands of miles away, something out of a Stephen King novel. It was here in Brighton, the city I work in every day.

I live in London, but my businesses are based in Brighton. Each day, I commute on the Gatwick Express on a train that stops at the airport – a hub that connects to Chinese cities and the world. The palpable sense of paranoia that you feel when you see someone sneeze on the train or hear a cough is, sadly, real. I’ve taken to carrying anti-bacterial hand gel with me now. Some people on my regular train are now wearing face masks, and I even saw one woman wiping down her train table with wipes.

“When I researched government advice on how employers should handle the situation, I was surprised to find that there is none...”

The fear of my business being crippled by my workforce being taken ill or quarantine being imposed on the city is something I have to consider. When news spread that coronavirus had infected a number of people in Brighton, I knew it would only be a matter of time before staff started worrying about the potential ramifications. But when I researched the latest government advice on how employers should handle the situation, I was surprised to find that there is none.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is good at being proactive in offering advice to Brits abroad in times of crisis, but it seems that when it comes to Brits on home turf the advice has been patchy and leaves a number of unanswered questions. I myself am left wondering if the “super spreader” got the Gatwick Express back to Brighton after he got off his Easyjet flight at Gatwick.

We decided ourselves to enact a proactive working from home policy that will allow our staff to continue their jobs remotely should they be unable to come into work or quarantined even if exhibiting no obvious symptoms. Thankfully remote working is relatively straight-forward for a business like ours, but there will be plenty of small businesses that could be hugely affected by any disruption to their work.

But when it comes to what those businesses should do to protect their staff in a city that now has a number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, the silence is deafening. There is no advice on government websites for employers. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development offers advice on their site which in fact says: “Keep up to date with government advice and adapt business plans to reflect changes” and “actively communicate these plans with your people, customers and suppliers”. Yet there is no government advice specific to Brighton or for employers apart from the general coronavirus campaigns.

Shutting down is not an option. Apart from the loss in sales we’d suffer – over 70% of our clients are based in the USA – we have hundreds of customers travelling with us right now. It’s our responsibility to make sure they continue to enjoy their trips, and that if travel advice changes we react accordingly to help them alter their travel plans. I’m confident in our crisis planning and ensuring we’ll get by, but it strikes me as odd that there is not even the most basic advice from the government on how to handle the situation.

“Right now all we can do is use our best guess on how to safeguard the health of our staff...”

It’s a chilling parallel to the fact that in Wuhan when there were only a handful of cases, the Chinese government were slow to offer advice and public information. Over here in the UK we’re not doing much better at advising people and employers what they should be doing. ‘Wash your hands and use anti-bacterial gel’ just isn’t strong enough advice.

I want to know whether we should be asking our staff to stay at home, whether we should be asking our office cleaners to use additional cleaning products and whether the government is confident that my staff are still safe to be coming into the office on public transport. Right now all we can do is use our best guess on how to safeguard the health of our staff and the continuation of our business.

Darren Burn is the CEO of LGBT travel companies OutOfOffice.com and TravelGay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dazburn.

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