Coronavirus: Key issues for employers to consider
Many employers are being asked questions by their staff about the recent coronavirus outbreak. Cecily Donoghue, specialist employment solicitor considers the impact that the coronavirus outbreak could cause for employers, answers some FAQs and provides practical tips to consider.
What is the virus?
- Coronaviruses are a type of viruses that can be found in animals and humans. As a group, these viruses are common across the world, however a new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019.
- The situation is changing rapidly, as the number of reported cases increases and further countries confirm cases.
- On 30th January 2020, the UK risk level was changed from low to ‘moderate’ but this may change.
- Typical symptoms include mild symptoms including runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. Some individuals experience more severe symptoms and it can lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties and, in rare cases, death.
- More susceptible individuals at greater risk of becoming seriously ill include older people, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Health and safety obligations:
Employers have a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, including those who are particularly at risk for any reason.
Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of people they work with. They must cooperate with their employer to enable it to comply with its duties under health and safety legislation.
So what do we have to do? In line with the annual flu precautions, employers should consider taking simple steps to protect their staff’s health and safety:
- Limit work trips to China.
- Educate staff without causing panic – send email updates based on Government guidance or display posters outlining the current situation.
- Provide tissues and hand-sanitiser and encourage their regular use.
- Consider displaying posters on ‘cough etiquette’, hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food practices.
- Regularly clean frequently touched communal areas, including door handles, kitchens, toilets, showers, and hotdesk keyboards, phones and desks.
- Ensure that anyone with coronavirus symptoms (cough, sore throat, fever, breathing difficulties, chest pain) does not come into work. If they have recently travelled back from China or have had contact with someone who has (or with someone infected with the virus), they should call the NHS and get a diagnosis. They should not return to work until all symptoms have gone.
- Keep the situation and government guidance review. If the situation worsens, employers may have to take additional measures such as minimising all work-related travel.
- Consider allowing high-risk individuals to work from home, particularly if there are coronavirus cases are confirmed near the workplace.
What about pay?
If employees are quarantined as a result of a Government requirement, then they will be classed as sick and entitled to the sick pay provided in the contracts of employment.
If an employer requires staff to remain away from work (self-quarantine) then:
- If they feel well and can work remotely, then they should be paid as normal; alternatively,
- If they are unable to work remotely and you require them not to attend work, they will need to be paid in full for the quarantine period because they are well enough to work but you have requested them not to attend.
Currently, those at most risk of becoming seriously ill if they catch the coronavirus appear to include older people, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory or immune problems.
If the outbreak worsens in the UK, you should carry out a risk assessment to gauge whether the working environment of high-risk individuals presents a risk of infection (e.g. because they will be exposed to individuals who are infected with the virus).
Employers should keep the situation under regular review and keep up to date on further government guidance. For further information about work and travel, employees who have recently returned from China, or how to manage employees who refuse to attend work, you can find more information on our Employment Law pages.