Broadband in the time of swine flu

Broadband in the time of swine flu

In a deep global recession the last thing the world needs is a new economic shock, but that seems to be exactly what we are facing. The World Health Organisation raised its flu pandemic alert level to 5 yesterday and governments around the world are stocking up on anti-viral drugs and face masks, however, broadband could prove to be just as important in helping the UK to cope with a flu pandemic.

In what turned out to be a highly prescient piece of work, the BSG explored the role of broadband in a global pandemic in its 2008 report on the value of next generation broadband to the UK. Broadband didn’t exist when the UK was last hit by a flu pandemic but its near universal availability today could prove vital in ensuring that the economy keeps going in the event of large numbers of people falling ill.

Many large organisations will already have flu pandemic contingency plans in place but almost all organisations should be thinking about how they could use broadband to help them cope with the disruption that could result if the flu virus really does take gripe in the UK.

The advice from government, if you notice symptoms, is to stay at home and call the NHS for advice. However, it is not only those who are sick who are likely to be staying at home. In an effort to reduce the spread of the virus through their staff, many companies will be recommending that employees avoid crowded offices and public transport and work remotely from home instead.

This should help many companies maintain a continuity of service but will also have an additional benefit of reducing the pressure on public transport systems, which will themselves face severe disruption as key staff fall ill.

Remote presence provides all sorts of options and flexibility for coping with a pandemic which may well require draconian social distancing measures to be put in place.

For instance, while many school children and no doubt some teachers will relish the thought of schools being closed, remote learning could be implemented so that children continue to be educated, even while school buildings are closed. Remote diagnosis and support could alleviate some of the pressure on the health service, while preventing the spread of the virus through facilitating treatment in the home (and avoiding infecting our invaluable healthcare professionals).

The 2008 BSG report went as far as trying to calculate the economic value that broadband would offer in a pandemic. Essentially we estimated that, based on the probability of a pandemic, a given mortality rate, the economic value of a life, and assuming next generation broadband could reduce the mortality rate by 5% by enabling more social distancing measures, the annual benefit in terms of avoided deaths would be £200m.

The role that broadband could play in the event of this pandemic becoming a reality should highlight to government the importance of ensuring everyone is connected – a ubiquitous broadband society has far more tools to deal with the pandemic threat than an equivalent less-connected society.

More than this, however, it should highlight the importance to government of ensuring their own services make full use of broadband and have the flexibility to continue to function and support society as events, such as pandemics, unfold.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG