SWINE flu will infect the region’s economy if the current pandemic strikes down 50% of the North East population as predicted, experts warned last night.
Health organisations have forecast that half the people in Durham, Northumberland, and Tyne and Wear could catch the virus this winter.
That would cost thousands of working days lost to infected employees, reduced retail spending as people stay at home, and a possible hit in business productivity.
UK finance experts have estimated that World GDP could be cut by around £1.8trillion in six months of pandemic, or 3.5% of 2009 GDP.
And business leaders in the region fear the North East will have to face its share of the economic impact – on top of gloomy daily reports on the worsening recession. A spokesman for the North East Chamber of Commerce said: “National statistics are forecasting that at one stage of the outbreak, one in eight workers will be infected and unable to attend work.
“That is going to have a significant impact on the businesses those employees work for. That also means that one in eight consumers will be affected as well, and not spending money, or shopping, or visiting leisure attractions in the North East.
“Business could be hit by that when there is a break in spending. At the moment, though, it’s impossible to say what the final economic impact will be.”
Swine flu has spread across the world since emerging in Mexico and is now officially the first flu pandemic for 40 years. Seventeen people with swine flu have died in the UK so far.
On June 28, there had been 43 confirmed cases in the North East and a total of 5,937 nationally.
Last month, an Oxford Economics think tank study reported on potential financial effects of swine flu on UK regions. Around £42bn losses are predicted to hit Britain as a result of a 3% fall in gross domestic product (GDP) due to the swine flu pandemic, according to the report.
The report stated: “The consumption of discretionary goods and services such as restaurants or tourism is likely to be cut as consumers – and business travellers – stay away from crowded places in order to avoid infection.
“In addition, heightened uncertainty about economic developments is likely to make businesses postpone investment.
“Increased uncertainty would also have a negative impact on financial markets, bringing lower share prices and higher market interest rates than warranted by the economic situation.”
Regional development agency One North East said last night it was “monitoring closely” for any downward shift in tourist numbers caused by visitors reluctant to travel.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has held a meeting with all its regional chiefs to work out contingency plans, and will reveal the outcome of the talks shortly.
David Frost, director-general of the BCC, said: “If the projected figures for the number of people contracting swine flu come to bear, we are going to find companies and the economy hit by very intense short-term periods of staff absence through illness. Businesses need to be prepared.”
The government’s Business Link North East website urges firms to ensure they are flexible enough to cope with staff shortages so they can trade through the swine flu pandemic.
Martin Wilson, director of NHS flu resilience in the North East, said: “We’ve been planning for the past five year’s for a flu pandemic that could affect 50% of people in the region.”
Page 3 - Number of people ill doubles in one week >>
Number of people ill doubles in one week
TWENTY-NINE people have now died in the UK after contracting swine flu, the Government announced last night.
Twenty six people have died in England and three in Scotland, including a tourist with significant underlying medical conditions who died at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness last night.
And Cherie Blair, the wife of former prime minister Tony, has pulled out of a series of public engagements while she battles the virus.
Figures show that the number of patients in hospital with swine flu has doubled in the last week, while visits to GPs and the number of calls to NHS Direct have also shot up.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) estimates there were 55,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last week, including people visiting GPs and those who are looking after themselves at home. Up to 85,000 people could be currently affected, the HPA model shows.
Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, issued figures last night on the possible number of people who could die as a result of the current pandemic. The figures are being used by the NHS to help plan its services and show that a 30% infection rate among the population could possibly lead to 65,000 deaths. However, the estimates vary depending on the numbers who end up infected.
Sir Liam also announced details of a National Pandemic Flu Service for England, which should be up and running towards the end of next week.
This telephone and internet-based service will enable people to get a diagnosis of swine flu, obtain a unique reference number, and gain access to Tamiflu. People will be diagnosed over the telephone or can follow a questionnaire on the internet which will give them a diagnosis.
A "flu friend" can then obtain the antiviral from a depot around the country using the unique reference number before delivering it to the sick patient. Sir Liam said there was now "exceptional influenza activity" across most of the country except Yorkshire and the Humber, although there are signs the virus is spreading across that region.
Page 4 - Rise in orders >>
Rise in orders
SWINE flu is proving a profit-winner for some North East businesses.
One cleaning company, which offers hygiene solutions for the workplace, has reported a big rise in orders due to the outbreak.
Phil Harrison, operations director for Clean Solutions Ltd, based in North Shields, has ordered thousands of pounds worth of extra stock had been to keep up with demand.
And he is now selling swine flu prevention kits which help households, offices and other workplaces to keep a sterile environment.
Mr Harrison said: "We have been watching the news and keeping an eye on developments.
"It is not to dissimilar from the outbreak of avian flu a few years ago, so we are prepared for this situation."
The office hygiene packs contain an audio equipment sanitiser for telephones, keyboards, monitors, light switches and other office machines; alcohol gel hand cleaner; a bacterial cleaner proven to kill the flu virus and optional facemasks.
Pandemic 'worse than terrorist attack'
A FLU pandemic could be more devastating than a terrorist attack, according to one police officer.
Superintendent Steve Anderson from West Midlands Police said officers could be forced to stop non-emergency work in a worse-case scenario.
He said: "We have this thing called a community risk register, which is in effect a who’s who list of scary things that could happen in the community.
"And we’ve assessed each of those based on actually how likely it is to happen, and the impact on communities – and even as bad as terrorism, as bad as heat wave, as bad as flooding can get, a worse-case scenario is that pandemic flu would be worse than any of those."
The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the swine flu outbreak had become a pandemic on June 11.
A disease is classed as a pandemic when it reaches global epidemic proportions.
Page 5 - Don't pass on the virus >>
Don't pass on the virus
WHAT SHOULD EMPLOYERS LOOK FOR?
The symptoms of swine flu are broadly the same as those of ordinary seasonal flu. They will include a high temperature and at least two of the following symptoms: widespread muscle and joint aches, cough, headache, blocked or runny nose, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhoea.
WHAT SHOULD EMPLOYEES DO IF THEY THINK THEY HAVE SWINE FLU?
First check your symptoms at www.nhs.uk or via the swine flue information line 0800 1 513 513. If you think you have swine flu then stay at home, rest and drink plenty of fluids. Use over-the-counter flu remedies or paracetamol to reduce your symptoms. If you are still concerned stay at home and call your GP.
WHICH WORKERS SHOULD EMPLOYERS KEEP THE CLOSEST EYE ON?
Like normal seasonal flu, it is possible for anyone to catch the virus. So far, swine flu seems to have affected more people in the younger age group, therefore employees aged 16 to 25 years of age.
Those people who are more at risk of developing more serious problems associated with the virus, are those who have underlying health problems, those who are aged over 65, and pregnant women.
WHAT CAN WORKPLACES DO TO REDUCE THE THREAT OF SWINE FLU ARRIVING OR SPREADING?
You can reduce the risk of catching or spreading swine flu by always covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
Throw away the tissue straight away and maintain good basic hygiene, for example washing hands thoroughly with soap and warm water. Employers can put up reminder signs for their staff.
TO download the swine flu advice leaflet for your employees, visit www.direct.gov.uk/swineflu