Virus control works – but for now it needs a government policy

UK businesses are still waiting for the Coalition government to respond to a consultation document outlining new restrictions on hiring and offering virus-infected workers. At this time, three years on from the period when the virus controls were trialled in the sector, the government still has not announced its plans for the future of the voluntary scheme.

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Many British businesses already control the hiring of virus-infected staff by restricting the number of infections they can introduce. However, there is significant evidence that these safeguards fail to eradicate the virus, as demonstrated by some of the outbreaks we’ve seen. These incidents demonstrate the need for a new approach; a tool that provides greater credibility and improves trust in organisations.

The Westminster Statement on the NHS announced the government would set out a policy for the virus controls that were trialled in 2014. With the publication of the second consultation paper, the government has fallen behind its promises and confirmed that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will not issue guidelines for the virus controls until 2019. Until this policy is outlined, small businesses continue to have to fall back on the voluntary controls.

In September 2016, the Programme Governance for the Virus Controls ran out, but by then some high-profile infections had occurred. The NHS’s Response to a Highly Virulent Virus has been cited as an example of how voluntary controls were used. For example, in April 2016, two separate hospitals were successfully treated, however they managed to proceed with their outbreak only because security systems were set up, computers were infected by the virus but new ones were passed on to the treatment areas.

In 2013, human/vector hybrid infections were an epidemic in the north of England, with hospitals and surgery centres falling victim. After a suspicious outbreak, medical computers in the computer laboratories in north-east hospitals became infected with a virus. Hospital managers contacted the Department of Health and Clinical Commissioning Groups and implemented the virus controls. The infected computers were not used to run clinical tests.

This demonstrates that virus controls have a real ability to stop ransomware being spread. However, the virus controls only had a significant effect during the high-profile outbreak, in which this effect was felt by the managers running the hospitals. Virus controls didn’t help the whole community cope, so the system was abandoned. There was a backlash from some of the NHS personnel involved, who later started a group campaigning for a return to virus controls.

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So the current system still poses significant barriers for small businesses, especially for those which have only recently established their own IT departments. We found that compliance costs are high, and the paperwork involved is extensive. Both these factors represent a major barrier to small businesses who wish to take advantage of virus controls.

In May 2013, Andrea Hush, senior lecturer in infection control, found in a follow-up study, that implementing virus controls made “a significant contribution to reducing infections through both clinical testing and research”. In one example, “on the night the virus control team was called to investigate a laboratory for the first time, there were six infections within the lab complex and through 2am; there were six infections the next day”. Hush’s study was a joint study with Surrey and Borders NHS foundation trust.

Virus control did not provide a clear route for businesses to benefit from clinical trials and/or prevent reoccurrence. We are looking forward to the government responding to our consultation in the autumn, and we remain hopeful that a reasonable new system will be established that benefits both the NHS and small businesses.

Neil Irvin is the research programme manager at the Centre for Infection Research at the University of Bristol. The project is entitled Examining the Preventive Effectiveness of Microbiome+ Targets in Protective Measures in the Healthcare Community.

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