Coronavirus: Information for UK employers
Coronavirus: Information for UK employers
Although the number of reported cases of coronavirus in the UK is low, the situation is quickly evolving. There are a number of risks posed by the virus that employers will need to be aware of, and it is important to remember that employers have a duty of care towards their employees and should take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce. The below information is general guidance and employers should obtain independent legal advice for any specific actions they plan to take.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains that coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
The symptoms include a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Some people may suffer from a mild illness and recover easily, while in other cases, the infection can progress to pneumonia. Symptoms can appear in as few as two days after infection or as long as 14 days.
The virus is most likely to spread from person to person through:
- direct contact with a person while they are infectious
- contact with droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes
- touching objects or surfaces that were contaminated by droplets from secretions coughed or sneezed from an infected person with a confirmed infection.
Duty of care
Employers have a duty of care towards their employees which includes not exposing them to unnecessary risk. In this case, that may include not putting them in a position in which they could become infected by the virus without taking all reasonable precautions.
Your duty of care, where Coronavirus is concerned, may differ depending on an employee’s specific circumstances, for example, if they are older or they have underlying conditions.
It is important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.
The UK government has now advised against all non-essential travel. You can keep up to date on UK developments here. This advice is under constant review and is subject to change, in particular, the list of countries.
If an employee has a confirmed case of Coronavirus or if an employee develops symptoms and self isolates
Employees who have been confirmed to have Coronavirus or who develop a fever or a new cough should self-isolate. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rules are to be changed temporarily to help workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The government announced in the Budget 2020 last week, that statutory sick pay is now available to employees from day one of sickness.
The Government will temporarily extend SSP to cover:
- Individuals who are unable to work because they have been advised to self-isolate
- People caring for those within the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate
People who are sick can now get a sick note by contacting 111 instead of going to their doctor.
The Chancellor also said businesses that employ fewer than 250 staff will have the costs of statutory having to take time off work refunded for up to 14 days. And £2bn will be allocated to cover firms that lose out because the staff is off sick.
Employers who have concerns about an employee’s exposure
Where you have concerns about a non-symptomatic employee or if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus, then the best advice is to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.
Where you choose to suspend employees just as a precaution, you should continue to pay them their full pay unless the contract gives you a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).
Employees who refuse to come to work due to concerns
If an employee is worried about catching the virus and so refuses to attend work, ACAS suggests listening to the employee’s concerns and offering reassurance. Your response to this will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus at work. It will be different for every employer and will depend on specific circumstances including whether anyone in the workforce has already been diagnosed or there is another real risk of exposure. You may decide to offer a period of paid annual leave or unpaid leave or allow the employee to work from home where this is feasible. Your response should be reasonable to the specific situation.
Discrimination, bullying, and harassment
Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their national origin. Placing extra obligations on individuals (more robust hygiene methods, for example) places you at risk of a claim of race discrimination. Extra hygiene measures, if you decide to implement them, should be required of all employees.
You should be alert to “banter”, or more serious instances of harassment, between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity and ensure that your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.
Employees planning to travel abroad
Current guidelines are that everyone should avoid all essential travel. Employees may have pre-booked annual leave to countries that have a high number of cases and employers may be concerned that they pose a risk of picking up the virus and exposing the rest of the workforce to it. Employers cannot force employees not to travel and employees may not be inclined to cancel their plans if it means they may miss an important family event or will incur any financial issues. Employees should be encouraged to maintain good hygiene whilst travelling and pay attention to any signs of ill health. Whilst you can cancel annual leave that has already been requested and authorised, this may not be good for employee relations. Employers should tread carefully here; any treatment which the employee feels is detrimental because their choice to travel may lead to claims of indirect discrimination and treatment would need to be objectively justified.
Closure of business
Some employers may decide to put in place a plan to cover a situation where their business temporarily closes due to exposure or potential exposure to the virus. Employees who are ready and willing to work but are not provided with work (as would be the case with a temporary closure) can be placed on lay off. Lay off should normally be with full pay unless there is a provision within the contract for lay off without pay (subject to the payment of statutory guarantee pay for employees with a least one month’s service at the time of lay off). If there is no contractual provision, you can attempt to agree with employees a period of unpaid lay off.
Closure of schools
If schools or nurseries close due to suspected or actual cases of the virus, employees may notify their employer that they are unable to attend work due to a breakdown in their usual childcare arrangements. In this case, as in others where a child is unable to attend school due to closure, so the employee must remain at home to look after them, normal rules on unpaid time off for dependants will apply unless the employer has any other rules to cover this situation.
Employers are encouraged to provide disinfectant hand gels and take measures to ensure employees are safeguarded. The WHO’s standard infection control measures are:
- frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
- when coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue — throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands
- avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough
- if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider.
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