With cases of the virus now confirmed in the UK, what steps should employers be taking to prevent the spread of Coronavirus?

Coronavirus has hit global headlines in recent weeks, with the World Health Organization declaring a global public health emergency.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak, many organisations have implemented precautionary measures. British Airways have halted all air travel to several regions, and various global tech firms including Apple, Amazon and Google have imposed travel restrictions to and from China. 

With cases of the virus now confirmed in the UK, what steps should employers be taking to prevent the spread of Coronavirus?

Experts believe that the number of people affected by the virus will continue to rise, and health officials around the world are on high alert. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all travel to Hubei Province, where the virus originated, and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China.

Although the epidemic has started in China, it hasn’t taken long for it to spread worldwide. A recent development has led to Health Secretary Matt Hancock stating that Britons returning from quarantined Italian towns must self-isolate, even if they have no symptoms.

In addition, those with flu-like symptoms coming back from areas of Italy north of Pisa should stay at home for 14 days. Italy has put several towns in Lombardy and Veneto regions into lockdown because of the coronavirus.

But what does this mean for employers and employees? How do we deal with various scenarios and what’s the impact on employment issues? The law says if you stay away from work but aren’t sick, you may not get paid. But is that an appropriate response for employers at this time?

I’ve been to one of those towns but I’m not ill. Will I get paid if I’m not at work?

If you can work from home, you may be able to carry on as normal. But those who work in retail and factory workers probably won’t have that option. And how should employers treat an employee who self-isolates for 2 weeks? There are an obvious number of options:

  • Sick leave – paid or SSP (depends on contract of employment)
  • Take holidays
  • Unpaid authorised absence
  • Work from home
  • Flexible time off

Otherwise there’s a major risk the employee will come to work because they want to get paid. As an employer, you have a duty of care to ALL your employees and there’s also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment environment. So, it’s a balance as an employer you must consider and take appropriate action.

But this is only advice and not the law. There is no statutory right to pay if you aren’t sick, although some contracts may be more generous than others. A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “People who are prevented from working because of a risk to public health are able to claim universal credit.” She said they may also be entitled to contributory employment and support allowance, which helps with living costs for people who cannot work because of a health condition.

If employees need to self-quarantine or are sent home as a precaution, this should be done on full pay. Some employment contracts contain a right to suspend employees briefly without pay. However, this right usually only applies in limited circumstances and a suspected illness is unlikely to be covered. Unless there is a clear contractual right to suspend employees without pay or benefits, then employers who insist on this could potentially face claims for breach of contract, unlawful deduction of wages and constructive unfair dismissal.

Who do I have to tell?

Employee’s in this situation should be communicating with their employer every day. Not telling your boss why you are off work could breach your contract.

I am too ill to work. Will I get paid?

If you are sick, or have symptoms, you qualify for at least statutory sick pay, or whatever your contract may provide over and above that. Statutory sick pay (SSP) is £94.25 per week and can be paid for up to 28 weeks. It is only paid from the fourth day of sickness. A doctor’s note may not be necessary in the circumstances as GP advice is to self-isolate and stay at home and not visit your GP practice.

I have a history of illness and now I have to be off again. Will I be fired?

While long, frequent absences can get you sacked, employees can take some comfort from the fact that the call to self-isolate is government advice and is designed to stop the spread of the disease. Also, employers have a responsibility for duty of care for ALL employees and to stop their employees from falling ill.

In these circumstances, and since employees have followed government advice, we would encourage employers to be reasonable.

Be prepared

  • Keep up to date with Government and public health advice: Employers should keep up to date with the situation as it develops and refer employees who are concerned about infection to official and expert medical sources such as GOV.UK and the National Health Service.

Look after people’s health, well-being and safety

  • Employees’ health, safety and well-being during a global health emergency like the coronavirus outbreak should be paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety and to provide a safe place to work, but there’s also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment.
  • Communicate clearly to employees that they need to take precautions, avoiding travel to affected areas and/or coming into contact with infected or potentially infected people or animals. Advise them on what to do if they think they may have caught the virus.

Wider health and well-being concerns

  • Keep up to date and follow official medical advice as it’s updated. Keep employees informed, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have returned from Wuhan or Hubei province, other parts of China and other affected areas, or have been in contact with an infected person, or with an individual who has returned from affected areas. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers.
  • Implement an internal communication strategy so that employees are aware of measures that are being taken to manage the situation in your organisation.
  • Understand that some people may have real concerns about catching the virus, while others may have worries about family or friends stranded in an affected area or returning from China or another affected area. Try to reassure employees that there is no need to panic and the risk to the UK population remains low.
  • Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees, and where to signpost people for further advice or support.
  • Promote the resources you have available to support employee’s health and well-being generally, including those through an employee assistance programme.
  • If the virus spreads and/or becomes a pandemic and the risk of infection is heightened, be prepared to step up the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Keep in mind anyone who may be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing health conditions, age, or pregnancy.
  • As part of your organisation’s contingency plan, explore more flexible resourcing strategies in case your business suffers staffing shortages.

Develop flexible resourcing plans

  • Develop strategies to maximise the amount of home working to prevent the spread of infection if necessary.
  • Investigate ways of harnessing the use of technology to limit the amount of face-to-face contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. For customer facing organisations, consider introducing or maximising the use of self-service options and online services.
  • Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours to keep your business going. If this happens, you will need to comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998  to ensure appropriate length of daytime working hours, night shifts and rest breaks. 
  • Have in place plans that will enable the organisation to operate on a skeleton staff if necessary. Identify key services and roles that are essential and can’t be put on hold, as well as projects or roles that could be temporarily stood down. Identify those individuals and managers who have transferrable skills, who can fulfil more than one function and could be allocated to more essential roles.
  • Carry out a resourcing risk assessment of the organisation, identifying essential areas of the business where few employees have the required skills. Training additional employees in these skills should be considered. Ensure that procedures are developed to ensure smooth handovers for employees who are filling in for colleagues in unfamiliar roles. It may be necessary to provide additional training and a risk assessment if individuals are moving to roles where there may be a healthy and safety risk. 
  • If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements and communicate the business reasons to employees.

Emphasise staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees:

  • Place posters that encourage staying home when sickcough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
  • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.

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