Norovirus: what are the options for hospitality premises?

18th August 2014

Norovirus was in the news again last week, when a suspected outbreak occurred at a caravan park in Devon affecting over 90 campers.

According to reports, the River Dart Country Park took the decision to close the park, following discussions with Public Health England, and send some 700 guests home in order to carry out a deep clean. At the same time, closer to home, two wards at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton were closed last week to new admissions following an outbreak.

When Norovirus strikes in a hotel, guest house or caravan park, it’s not only the guests who suffer. An outbreak can cause an expensive dilemma for the owners as they decide whether to stay open or close.

Norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis. The symptoms consist mainly of diarrhoea and vomiting. It can be spread by contact with an infected person, either directly or through air if the infected person is vomiting; by consuming contaminated food or water or by contact with contaminated surfaces or objects such as toilets and tables. The disease is spread easily, particularly in “closed” areas such as cruise ships and hotels.

The incubation period is 24-72 hours; therefore a newly arrived guest could be carrying the illness without realising it. The duration of the illness generally lasts 24-48 hours. An infected guest is at their most contagious from the moment they become ill to about 2-3 days after they have recovered.

If an outbreak occurs, owners of hospitality premises can either risk the negative publicity generated through local and social media and combat the problem whilst remaining open for business, or lose business by closing the premises whilst it undergoes a deep cleaning exercise. If the problem is manageable, owners may take the chance of the premises remaining open. However they must report it and work closely with the local environmental health authority. It would be sensible to also inform their insurer in case of any potential compensation claims. There are numerous measures that hospitality premises can take to help prevent the spread of the illness details of which can be found by contacting the local public health office or reading the Health Protection Agency guidelines found on their website.

The problem for hospitality premises is that if they close voluntarily, it is unlikely that their insurance will cover loss of business. If they do not close, they run the risk of claims being made against them. Infected guests may successfully argue that the hotel had breached its duty of care and had knowingly exposed them to a risk of contracting the virus. Norovirus claims can be very costly, not only in terms of the number of claimants that naturally arise from an outbreak, but also damages in individual claims can be high if the symptoms were serious.

The general consensus amongst owners of hospitality premises is to take the hit on profits and close whilst an extensive cleaning programme is activated, usually undertaken by private contractors. It is sensible to have an action plan in place in case of an outbreak. This will involve making all staff aware of their obligations and duties when the illness strikes. It is also imperative that owners inform not only the local authority but all present and future guests of the problem, since guests will have an obligation to maintain high levels of hygiene. This will help eradicate the problem and, being made aware of the risk, may prevent claims for compensation.

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