NZ borders will close in case of pandemic

By Martin Johnston

When the next influenza pandemic strikes, New Zealand's borders are likely to be closed to all incoming travellers.

The lock may be on for several days, says a pandemic planning guide for businesses.

All passengers may be quarantined for at least eight days, says the guide, published yesterday by the Ministries of Health and Economic Development.

Just where the passengers and air crew would be held was undecided, the director of public health, Dr Mark Jacobs, said last night, but it could be a building fitted with beds especially for the purpose.

Yesterday's guide to businesses and a companion document for infrastructure providers such as electricity companies is intended to encourage them to beef up, or start, their pandemic planning. The publications are a bid to minimise the potential for chaos from business closures.

It is expected that up to half of all workers could be absent for a fortnight - being sick or having to look after others who are sick, or caring for their children if schools close - at the peak of a severe pandemic wave.

The guide gives advice to the public and to businesses.

At home

Regularly washing hands with soap and water and drying them thoroughly is one of the best protections. Coughed-out flu virus can survive up to two days on hard surfaces such as doorknobs and can be transferred on the hands to the nose, mouth or eyes.

The business guide contains step-by-step pictures on how to wash hands, with soap or alcohol-based sanitiser.

Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue and discard the tissue in a rubbish bin - and wash hands again afterwards. Use paracetamol to reduce a fever.

Stay home if sick. Ensure you have enough food and drinking water in case you become sick and cannot go out. "Plan for about a week's worth of supplies," the Health Ministry recommends.

At work Staff can refuse to work if they believe it will harm them seriously, but the "understood risks" must have materially increased first and they must try to resolve the matter with their employer.

Employers are urged to appoint an "influenza manager" to ensure there are enough tissues, face masks for those who start coughing at work, and hygiene products, and to manage staff who become ill at work.

People who see someone with symptoms should report the person to the flu manager, preferably by phone. If the person is found to have flu symptoms, he or she should put on a mask, leave work and contact a health worker.

As many staff as possible should be set up to work from home. If working from home is uncommon for a business, it could encourage staff to try it, possibly one day a fortnight.

Hand-shaking and hugging should be avoided in a flu pandemic, the guide says. (Kissing and hongi-ing are not mentioned but can be expected to be risky.) "Consider holding meetings in the open air."

Keep a distance of at least 1m from other staff and cancel non-essential meetings. Bring your own lunch and eat at your desk or away from others.

"Do what needs to be done then leave the area."

Avoid public transport: walk, drive or go early or late to avoid rush-hour crowding on buses and trains.

Ensure workplaces are well-ventilated, "preferably by fresh air via opening windows, or otherwise by properly designed and maintained air-conditioning systems".

Symptoms

Flu symptoms include high temperature, headache, bodily aches and pains, fatigue, sudden onset of symptoms, sore throat and chest discomfort.

The health sector

During a severe pandemic, the health sector is not expected to cope, because hospitals and primary health clinics will be swamped with flu cases and will themselves be short-staffed.

Most flu cases will be expected to be cared for at home by sufferers or their families.

Community-based assessment centres - effectively field hospitals - may be set up in some urban areas to divert flu cases from public hospitals and medical centres.

Patients with suspected flu should phone their doctor and should not just turn up at the clinic.

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