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Increase in numbers calling in sick with coughs, colds and flu following swine flu pandemic reports

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Following the news two cases of swine flu (H1N1) have been reported in Airdrie in Scotland, anxiety among UK workers has caused an increase in staff calling in sick with 'flu-like symptoms'.

According to absence management company FirstCare's database of 60,000 employees, there was an 8.2% increase yesterday morning alone in the numbers calling in sick with coughs, colds or flu. FirstCare is questioning all callers with flu symptoms about their recent travel and is monitoring the situation carefully. But the company stresses in cases like this, when media attention is high surrounding an illness, an increase in absence is partly due to employees' fears.

But Marc Meryon, employment partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, warned employers they must prepare themselves for a flu pandemic to avoid legal risks.

He said: "Despite being aware of these risks for the past few years many businesses are still not prepared with emergency procedures in relation to protecting employees, should a pandemic be formally declared in the UK.

"Legally we are operating in somewhat uncharted territory. But there are definite obligations which all employers have towards their workforce and by addressing certain key issues."

Meryon advises employers to protect all staff from illness to avoid claims of discrimination, be prepared for special measures to help, for example, pregnant women or staff who are HIV positive, consider if the guidance offered by the Government is legally binding and find out who will have to pay employee life insurance if the insurer refuses to cover against swine flu.