What we know…
The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19 a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.
The main symptoms of COVID-19 appear to be a cough, a high temperature and, in severe cases, shortness of breath. Given this is a new virus there is a lack of immunity in the population hence the concern that it could spread extensively. The current data seem to show that we are all susceptible to catching this virus.
Data suggests 93 countries have so far been affected by the virus, a total of 100,330 reported cases globally, and 3,408 deaths. As of 6 March 2020, 20,338 people have been tested for the virus in the UK, of which 20,175 were confirmed negative, 163 were confirmed as positive and two people who tested positive have died.
Unfortunately, it is more likely than not that the UK will be significantly affected by this virus. The Government’s fundamental objectives are to deploy phased actions to contain, delay, and mitigate any outbreak using research to inform policy development.
Given that the data is still emerging, the impact of an outbreak on businesses is uncertain. The Government, in a stretching scenario, has predicted that it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.
What should employers do?
- Employers should be mindful that they have a duty to protect the health and safety of staff.
- Consider putting in place contingency plans and measures in order to respond to any disruption and ensure business continuity.
- Create a plan of how to respond if an infected person attends the workplace e.g. contacting Public Health England, creating a risk assessment, identifying points of contact and response plan.
- Keep abreast of the latest Government advice (see useful links below), including the latest guidance on travel.
- Put in place policies to address the risk caused by this outbreak, reassuring staff and addressing the potential issues in the workplace. The policy should address travel arrangements (business travel and personal as appropriate) , the circumstances in which it may be appropriate to self-isolate to prevent further spread of the virus and alternative arrangements to ensure business continuity e.g. homeworking or flexible-working (this of course is dependent on the nature of the work being performed). The policy should also cover pay arrangements for absences relating to coronavirus. Communicating the policy to staff is crucial.
- Remind staff of the importance of good hygiene, regular hand-washing, where possible avoid hand-shaking, consider providing hand-sanitisers and disposable tissues in the workplace.
- Employers need to factor in to their contingency plans that employees may have to take time off to care for dependants e.g. if schools become closed or dependants become unwell. Time off for dependants is a statutory right and is unpaid (unless the contract provides otherwise). However, staff should not be subjected to any detriment as a result of having to take time off to care for dependants.
- Employers should be aware of the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff, for example this may include enabling them to work from home to minimise the risk of contracting the virus.
- Government advice is that those who have been in close contact with an infected person or who have travelled to an affected area (see useful links below) should self-isolate. Those who are required to self-isolate are entitled to sick pay as set out in the employment contract. In an attempt to contain the virus, the Government has announced that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable from day one of absence as a temporary measure (emergency legislation is pending and further details are awaited). SSP is £94.25 a week; this could be significant reduction in pay for a number of workers.
- Employers should be alive to the risk that workers may attend work when unwell; thereby increasing the risk to others. An employee who fails to follow a reasonable instruction can be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.
- Where the employer imposes self-isolation (e.g. following travel) as a preventative measure, this would be akin to suspension and payment should be made in full.
- Employers should also take care to listen to concerns raised by employees relating to the virus and seek to address those concerns. It is possible that concerns could amount to a protected disclosure (i.e. whistleblowing) and as such an employee should not be subject to any detriment or treated unfairly for raising such concerns.
- Employers should also be mindful that information about an individual’s health is sensitive personal data; and as such it should treat any such information in confidence.
- Another concern is that coronavirus is fuelling racist behaviour. Employers should be alive to the risk of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. It is therefore important for employers to remind staff of their equal opportunities policy and that discriminatory conduct shall not be tolerated.
If you have any concerns about the impact of coronavirus in the workplace or require assistance with drafting your policy and contingency plans please contact the Employment Team.
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public Government website (data is updated at 2pm daily)
https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 World Health Organisation
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/contacts-phe-health-protection-teams Public Health England: health protection teams:
https://111.nhs.uk/service/covid-19 NHS 111 online Coronavirus services
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus Travel advice: coronavirus
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ NHS Coronavirus