Employers need to act now to ensure they are prepared if swine flu reaches pandemic proportions.

That is the suggestion from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which has urged action ahead of any possible outbreak.

The IOSH advised employers to prepare for a situation which could change rapidly and it said that companies should be vigilant about following government advice.

Commenting on the issue, Nattasha Freeman, president of IOSH, said: "Employers can play a role in ensuring their staff cope, services are maintained and businesses continue to operate.

"A pandemic can spread rapidly so organisations need to be flexible and prepare contingency plans in case a large number of staff, or their relatives, suddenly fall ill."

Among the advice issued by the IOSH is for companies to ensure that their personnel policies are reviewed and bureaucracy is reduced to allow employees who are ill to stay at home.

It suggested businesses embrace flexible working practices and encourage staff to take personal responsibility for protecting themselves.

Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer, said today (April 30th) that he was "concerned but not alarmed" about the World Health Organisation’s decision to raise the swine flu threat to level five.