The Covid-19 situation continues to escalate and as of 17th March, there have been 1,950 confirmed cases. Although this number is extremely low compared to the UK population, to minimise the spread and future impact on our health, it is essential we follow the guidance given by the World health Organisation, Public Health England and the Government.
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 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). This particular episode has been named “COVID–19”. It first appeared in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. A seafood market has been identified as the possible source of the virus.
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, infection can progress to pneumonia. Reports suggest that the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease are the most susceptible to serious illness and death. 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 surface 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.
The Foreign Travel Office have released a COVID-19 Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice which states all British Nationals against all but essential international travel. Any county may restrict travel without notice, so the safest and most sensible option is to remain in the UK.
Where there is still the need to travel for business within the UK, always know where your employees are and where they are going. Ensure they are given clear instructions on hygiene to reduce the risk of picking up the virus. If employees do report symptoms of the virus while they are travelling, you will have to support them.
Have a plan in place in advance of travel setting out what the employee should do if they feel ill.
For the latest on travel advice, visit the Foreign Travel Office by clicking HERE
Some employees may have plans to travel to China on annual leave. Provided their flights have not been cancelled and no other airport restrictions apply meaning they can still travel; you may have concerns over the risk the individual poses to picking up the virus and potentially passing it on in your workplace. Ultimately, you cannot restrict what your employees do in their spare time and whether they travel or not is their decision. While you can cancel annual leave that has already been requested and authorised, this may not be good for employee relations, and certain procedures may apply.
If an employee has a confirmed case of Coronavirus
Your normal sickness absence and pay policy will apply to employees who have Coronavirus. As of 11th March 2020, new measures have been put in place by the Government; statutory sick pay (SSP) is extended to all eligible persons and asked to self-isolate, even if they are not showing symptoms. The payment of £94.25 per week, will be available from day one of quarantine.
Employers who have concerns about an employee’s exposure
Where you have concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (for example, an employee who has recently returned from abroad but has displayed no symptoms, 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, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives you a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).
Employees who self-isolate
There is no obligation to pay an employee who is not sick but cannot come to work because they have been told by a medical expert to self-isolate, or have had to go into quarantine. However, ACAS suggest that it is best practice to treat this period as sick leave and follow your usual sick pay policy, or offer the employee the option of taking paid annual leave because this helps reduce the risk that the employee feels compelled to attend work and by doing so, put other employees at risk of catching the virus. Some employers may nevertheless choose not to pay employees in this situation. Whilst this is not unlawful, you should be consistent in your approach if more than one employee is affected in order to avoid claims of less favourable treatment.
As of 11th March 2020, new measures have been put in place by the Government; statutory sick pay (SSP) is extended to all eligible persons and asked to self-isolate, even if they are not showing symptoms. The payment of £94.25 per week, will be available from day one of quarantine.
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 suggest 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.
Where you have concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (particularly, if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.
Where you choose to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives you a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).
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
Employees may have pre-booked annual leave to countries which 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 of 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 down 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 must 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.
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 tissue away immediately and wash your hands
- avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough
if you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider.
CLICK HERE to take you to the Government’s official Guide Employers & Businesses.