There's always a distinction in any public-health campaign between taking the necessary steps to minimise the problem and over-egging the dangers in order to grab public attention to the point of looking alarmist.

The line between panic and necessary caution seems finer than usual in the debate over swine flu because of the air of unreality involved. People veer between panic-stricken jumping from any stranger who sneezes in a shop or on a bus and vigorous hand-sanitising, to sublime indifference to the real threat of a major health crisis that is probably just a month or six weeks away.

It makes the job of the HSE and the Department of Health difficult. Push the panic button too hard and they look stupid if the H1N1 virus proves mild and relatively harmless.

Apply too light a touch, or be too casual in organising the preparations needed to cope with mass sickness and more people will die needlessly and our hospitals, businesses, schools and universities as well as social institutions will suffer unnecessary chaos.

The trouble with the swine flu pandemic – and it is a pandemic – is that it is so full of uncertainties, and nobody likes uncertainty.

So far, the number of cases here, now approaching 200, hasn't had much impact on wider society and for most people, the symptoms have been quite mild.

But in Britain, where the epidemic has taken hold, there were over 100,000 new cases last week, nearly 900 were hospitalised and the number of deaths was reclassified at 26.

A new helpline and website through which anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza can be prescribed to prevent flu-sufferers from leaving their homes and relieving pressures on GPs was overwhelmed on its first day and health officials struggled to cope.

So far, the HSE has been a model of sanity and openness, but as we move to a position where the flu is highly likely to spread widely around the country, it is vital that the public generally, as well as businesses and schools, start making practical preparations for when the full blast arrives, as it inevitably will.

Last week, the HSE asked all businesses and major organisations to appoint a swine flu co-ordinator to cope with the projected 15% absenteeism rates. This isn't an idle request. Staff need to be told the clear procedures they should follow if they get symptoms. Businesses need to draw up strategies and coping mechanisms to fill staffing gaps. Overseas, many banks and public buildings have already installed hand sanitisers to minimise the spread. Similar measures could easily be introduced here.

We are told that hospitals already have well-established procedures to cope with a pandemic. It is estimated that as many as one-third of the population here will catch swine flu if it gets a hold before a mass vaccination programme can take place. Even if just 1% is seriously stricken, that is 13,000 people, of whom we can expect some of the most vulnerable to die.

A vaccine is currently at the human trial stage. But this is slow work and it could be autumn before it arrives. The HSE has ordered 7.7 million shots, so once it comes on stream, they will begin a mass (two-shot) vaccination programme, starting with vital health staff and those vulnerable from underlying chronic illnesses.

Meanwhile, everybody can play their part, following personal hygiene instructions and staying at home if they have symptoms. It may seem hilarious that the Bishop of Ferns asked the HSE for advice about whether to suspend the 'sign-of-peace' handshake to prevent the spread of infection. But he was right to ask. The handshake can continue – but people with any flu symptoms have been asked not to attend Mass.

Taking precautions does not, however, mean that the ordinary business of life has to halt altogether. Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan showed how common sense and pragmatism overcomes swine-flu barriers when she refused to postpone the lawsuit involving developer Seán Dunne on the grounds that he felt he had H1N1. There wasn't another slot to hear the case until next year. The judge told him to follow the proceedings from home by reading transcripts of the day's testimony. In the end, the developer's fever seems to have subsided. Dunne settled the case, agreed to pay his bill to his estate agents CB Richard Ellis and withdrew a counterclaim that they owed him €35m for overvaluing properties he had bought.

A fine example of how ordinary life can go on in the face of H1N1– even if that ordinary life is another episode in the demise of the Celtic Tiger.