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As the coronavirus spreads and government advice cranks up, Utility Week magazine editor Suzanne Heneghan considers the impact on UK utilities and their obligations for keeping civil society operating

The prime minister’s warning this week that the coronavirus outbreak is “likely to become more significant” across the UK will not have been missed by utilities.

As providers of lifeline services and critical national infrastructure, much of the responsibility for supporting Boris Johnson’s call for the country to go about its “business as usual” in “the days and weeks ahead” rests squarely with power and water companies.

As we have already witnessed from the ongoing flooding fallout across Britain, the industry’s quiet public service role often goes unnoticed until the unexpected occurs.

Of course, the sector is well used to managing crises, from storms to droughts. Yet the PM’s comments about Covid-19 on Monday, after chairing his first emergency COBRA meeting since taking office, have upped the stakes for all businesses – particularly utilities, with legal obligations for keeping civil society operating.

As the UK wrestles with its “containment” stage, and the number of Britons testing positive for the virus rises, it’s becoming clear utilities – as well as the supply chains that help sustain their operations – are highly unlikely to escape some demanding staffing issues.

They will need to be prepared for the “more widespread transmission” of the coronavirus that is now expected by Public Health England (PHE) and the “quite challenging” cases it says this will create.

Trade bodies and boardrooms across the sector will be considering their emergency plans and preparedness for the unknown impacts ahead. As “category 2” organisations and “co-operating bodies” under the Civil Contingencies Act – as well as being some of the largest employers in the country – they will be well aware of their legal commitments, along with their duty of care to their staff.

There have been some early signs around the industry this week, with four employees at Hinkley Point C reportedly self- isolating as a precaution against the virus, and EDF Energy advising all staff to take the necessary common-sense steps.

Meanwhile, as international travel becomes increasingly affected, concern is growing that November’s COP26 climate change talks in Glasgow could be derailed through delays to pre-summit talks due to this new, very different global emergency.

It’s another fast-moving picture with potentially huge operational and economic implications for the nation and its vital services, including utilities.

And, yet again, industry must be ready with a response.

Suzanne Heneghan, editor,