If the summer's swine flu pandemic has been bad, the autumn and winter could be even worse — and the qualitative research industry won't emerge unscathed. After all, if respondents get laid low and don't turn up to groups, what's a researcher going to do? Reschedule, frantically try to get replacements, or drive round pulling them out of their sick beds? Researchers are not immune and may be more at risk from the virus as they meet lots of people from all over the country.

It's time for a reality check and a bit of forward planning. Although the project may require six groups — two in London, two in Manchester and two in Edinburgh — it may not pan out like this. The outcome may be mini groups or some totally different composition of respondents.

We can't stop doing research, we'll just have to carry on but do things differently. People might have to stay in their own homes and ring respondents from there.

Time for change

There are always alternatives. This could be the time to explore teleconferencing, online surveys and bulletin boards, or even resort to snail mail. After all, if people are stuck indoors either because they're ill or looking after other members of the household they'll probably be only too happy for the diversion. And, of course, there are the green benefits.

Failure to invest in a bit of crisis management has already resulted in casualties. A researcher (who shall be nameless) in one major conurbation, who struggled on with a group when he was already suffering from the H1N1 virus, now fears he might have sparked a mini epidemic all on his own.

A recent BBC4 drama featured one doctor's pioneering efforts to protect the people of Manchester from the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, and to combat a second wave of the flu — which killed 40 million people worldwide — as it spread across the city and the UK.

His efforts in trying to rein the virus in led to the closure of the transport system and venues where the general public might gather. Who is to say that this won't happen again? There has already been talk of schools closing in the autumn. Stopping people getting together does seem to be a sensible way to limit infection and, given worst case scenarios that predict that, at the height, between 20% and 60% of the population may be unable to work for two weeks surely it now makes sense to plan ahead.

The key words will be flexibility and adaptability. Clients will need to be flexible in their requirements and timing criteria; researchers will need to work with them to explore the options. Some companies, including my own, are preparing their own "response plans" to enable them to plan and cope in the months ahead.

The downturn has already had an impact on the way people work in this industry. It has made them look at costings, quality and effectiveness. Swine flu is likely to make them scrutinise even more closely how and why they carry out qualitative research, but the result could be leaner, more efficient and more flexible modus operandi.