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COVID-19: Role of the risk professional

The World Health Organisation, on 11 March, declared that COVID-19 can now be declared a pandemic and that Europe is considered the epicentre of the global outbreak.

WHO said that cases outside China had increased 13-fold in the past two weeks and the affected countries had increased three-fold.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said.

“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

As what made clear by the UK government's announcements on 16 March and other governemts' responses over the past week, it has seen increased travel restrictions and more extreme measures for social distancing to begin. As organisations come to terms with, and respond to, the spread of Covid-19 and its threat to their operations, staff and customers the role of the risk professional should be moving centre stage.

Fiona Davidge, Enterprise Risk Manager at the Wellcome Trust, one of the United Kingdom's largest providers of non-governmental funding for scientific research, tells Airmic News the first job of the risk professional should be to know the threat situation is being actively managed.

“We activated our incident management team early in the situation so that we could both warm start contingency planning and, as importantly, agree messages to staff who are understandably concerned about travel, meetings, hand hygiene etc,” Ms Davidge says.

“Are line managers able to brief their staff effectively? We have focused on giving line managers useful information and risk assessment material to use with their teams. And we’re working with suppliers and partners to ensure they are providing enhanced input (cleaning, for example) and have their own plans.”

She adds that the risk professional should be asking within the organisation whether departmental business continuity plans are up to date and where people are travelling, for what reason and whether this is an alternative.

The response to the crisis and who it is led by will vary between organisations, but the departments heavily involved will likely include business continuity, human resources, finance and technology.

“Working together as an organisation is vital – what concerns one area is not what concerns another,” Ms Davidge adds. “We have had many debates about issues such as travel restrictions, how to handle staff who are off if schools close, for example. It is by consensus with a cross-organisational team that we have agreed the right way forward for our entity and staff.”

WHO has taken a lead in providing online training from experts on how to detect, prevent, respond to and control the Coronavirus. Online courses were published on 26 January and more than 10,000 people around the world accessed the resources within 10 days of it being released.

Claire Combes is an Airmic board member and Chair of the Association’s Risk Management Steering Group. “Organisations should be reviewing and updating their business continuity plans and providing regular updates, even if it is just forwarding government advice,” Ms Combes says. “My son’s school is doing very well on this – including telling parents that teachers will not be shaking their hands during this outbreak.”

Tracey Skinner, Director of Insurance & Risk Financing at BT Group, and Matthew McEwan, Director Risk Management at Coca-Cola European Partners, both also emphasised the importance of reviewing relevant insurance policies and communicating that to the business.

“It is important to be reviewing key group and local risk financing programmes with a view to establish affirmative coverage to the extent possible,” Mr McEwan adds.

For further discussion on insurance considerations, read Scott Feltham’s article here.