02 Mar 2020
As the situation regarding coronavirus is ever-changing, this blog post is being updated periodically - it was last updated on 11 March 2020
The risk of coronavirus continues and, with more outbreaks in Europe and other parts of the world, the illness is no longer predominately tied with travel to China and eastern Asia. Some people see this illness as 'something that happens elsewhere' however we need to recognise that in our need to seek sunnier climes when British weather gets cold and wet, more of us are coming into contact with elsewhere and therefore, more of us may come into contact with the virus or someone who may have become infected - both here in the UK or abroad
It is mostly likely that the COVID-19 virus is spread from person to person through:
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, you have a duty of care as an employer to ensure that the health, safety and wellbeing of your employees is protected, as far as is reasonably practicable. This includes not exposing them to unnecessary risk which, in the case of coronavirus, may include not putting them in a position in which they could become infected by the virus without taking all reasonable precautions
This duty of care may differ from employee to employee, depending on an individual’s specific circumstances - if they are older or have a pre-existing medical condition, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, they may be more vulnerable to the infection than other employees
As an employer you can’t try to restrict or cancel an employee’s holiday plans because of their chosen holiday destination. Even though you may have concerns over the risk that individual may pose to picking up the virus and potentially passing it on in the workplace. What an employee does when they are not at work, in their own time, is their own choice and you should respect it.
What you can do is put a risk prevention plan in place as soon as possible and communicate it out to the whole team, keeping them informed of the care the need to take to protect their own health and that of their work colleagues. You can also highlight what control measures you plan to put in place to support this risk prevention plan
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there are a few basic protective measures we can all take to minimise the risk of infection from corona virus. These are:
Carry out a travel risk assessment on all business travel, especially if it means travelling abroad. Review the necessity of the trip and consider alternatives – can the trip be postponed until the risk of infection no longer exists or is video-calling a more appropriate way to conduct the meeting
When conducting your travel risk assessment, it’s also important to fully involve those members of your team who will be taking the trip - because they will be taking the risks. Do any of them have pre-existing health conditions that would mean that they are more at risk of infection? What is the severity of the risk or what controls need to be implemented to minimise any risks?
One recommendation that is being made by many health organisations is that individuals who think they may be ill or who may have come into contact with an infected person should self-isolate. What does this mean?
If an individual has been advised to self-isolate, this means that they should …
• stay at home
• not go to work, school or public areas
• not use public transport or taxis
• ask friends, family members or delivery services to carry out errands for you
• try to avoid visitors to your home – it's OK for friends, family or delivery drivers to drop off food
They may need to do this for up to 14 days to help reduce the possible spread of infection
As an employer, you need to decide how you will manage self-isolation if it happens within your team. If an employee feels ill and, after contacting NHS 111, is advised to self-isolate then normal sickness absence procedures and rules should be applied, including sick pay entitlements (whether that’s SSP or Company Sick Pay). NHS 111 can also issue Fit Notes for coronavirus-related sickness absences, so employees who contact NHS 111 and are advised to self-isolate should receive such a Fit Note
The Government has now changed SSP rules to start from Day 1 as part of its Coronavirus plan. It has also confirmed that non-sick employees, who have been advised to self-isolate, will be eligible for SSP if they meet the qualifying criteria too. If you employ less than 250 employees, the Government will rebate the first 14 days SSP for coronavirus-related absences. Whether these changes to SSP rules will apply to any other sickness absence other than coronavirus infections and self-isolation has not been made clear yet
ACAS suggests that, under current circumstances, it is best practice to treat this period of self-isolation or quarantine as sick leave and follow your usual sick pay policy, or offer the employee the option of taking paid annual leave
Whatever you decide to do – to pay or not to pay – it’s important that you are consistent in your approach in order to avoid claims of less favourable treatment. If you have more than one case of self-isolation, all employees should expect the same pay outcome
If it is known or suspected that a non-symptomatic employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus whilst travelling or outside of work and, as an employer, you have concerns about them being in the workplace then it may be advisable to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on health and safety grounds. In this instance, the employee would generally be suspended on full pay for up to 14 days or until they receive the all clear
Alternatively, it may be worth permitting the employee to work from home if that is feasible. This may also be an option too for employees who are not sick but have been advised to self-isolate. In both cases, the employee would be paid as normal for their home-working hours
In situations where an employee refuses to attend work for fear of catching the virus, ACAS suggests that the employer should listen to the employee’s concerns and offer reassurance. Your response will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus – that will depend on whether or not someone within the workforce has already been diagnosed with coronavirus, the employee’s vulnerability to potential infection or the risk of exposure from other sources
In situations like this, you may offer a period of unpaid leave or paid leave if the employee has enough annual leave remaining or the employee may be able to work from home, if that is feasible. Your response should be reasonable, taking into consideration the situation and any mitigating factors
One factor that you should consider in your risk prevention plan is decide what you would do if your business had to close temporarily due to exposure or potential exposure to the virus. In a situation like this, you may look to the possibility of using lay-offs or short-time working.
As an employer, you can ask your employees to stay at home or take unpaid leave if there’s not enough work. There’s no actual limit for how long employees can be laid off or put on short time however, at some stage your employees may be able to claim redundancy pay
Employees should receive full pay for short-time lay-offs unless their contract allows unpaid or reduced pay lay-offs. If the contract allows employees to be unpaid, they will be entitled to statutory guarantee pay
Whatever you plan to do to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on your business – the most important thing you need to do is communicate with your team. Sharing the various elements of your plan with your team will demonstrate that you are prepared; that you have considered the options – this will minimise uncertainty and your employees will feel better prepared themselves for whatever happens
With any luck, you won’t need to implement this risk prevention plan but by developing it, you have already identified the potential issues you may have to face with regards to this virus and pre-defined the steps you and your team should take if you should need to