Last reviewed 30 July 2020

Reader note — December 2020. This article refers to self-isolation periods of 14 days which was correct at the time it was written. Please note that self-isolation periods have undergone adjustment and may no longer be 14 days.

1. An employee has informed me that they are showing symptoms of the virus. What should they do?

The latest advice from Public Health England (PHE) sets out the latest official advice in COVID-19: Stay at Home Guidance as follows:

  • if someone has a new continuous cough, and/or a high temperature (+37.5°C), they should stay at home and not leave the house for 10 days from when the symptoms started if they live alone; if they live with others, the whole household should self-isolate for 14 days. If anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, they need to stay at home for 10 days from when the symptoms appeared, regardless of what day they are on in the original 14-day isolation period. The original advice to self-isolate for seven days was amended on 30 July and the period extended to 10 days.

  • they should avoid vulnerable individuals such as the elderly, the pregnant and those with underlying health conditions

  • they should stay in a well-ventilated room with a window open as much as possible to enable ventilation and air flow to keep clean air moving through the room

  • they should talk to their employer, friends and family to ask for their help to access the things they will need in order to successfully stay at home

  • if people visit with supplies or food or work items, these should be left outside the home for the self-isolated person to collect

  • on 23 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the country that in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, everyone must stay at home unless their work is vital and cannot be done from home. However, this advice has now been relaxed and, from 1 August, employers in England will have more discretion to decide where it is safe to perform work. This could include continuing to work from home, or a return to a Covid-secure workplace. Advice in Scotland and Wales remains that work should be done from home where possible.

2. Should I pay staff who self-isolate (stay at home)?

From 16 March 2020, anyone who is under the Government's advice to self-isolate will be entitled to receive statutory sick pay (SSP), even if they do not have the virus or have any symptoms, provided they meet the other normal SSP eligibility criteria.

The Government has also implemented legislation to enable employees with coronavirus to receive statutory sick pay (SSP) from their first day off work, rather than the fourth as is normally the case. This can be backdated to anyone whose first day of incapacity was 13 March 2020 or later.

Employees who are required to self-isolate because they have returned from overseas travel are not entitled to SSP unless one of the other self-isolation reasons apply at the same time, for example, the employee has symptoms of coronavirus.

3. I have an employee who is at risk, should they self-isolate?

Government guidance is that employers should take every possible step to facilitate their employees working from home. If an employee can work from home, this should be arranged without delay. If they cannot work from home, then they can remain at work but you should take all precautions to maintain their health and safety.

Some individuals who are considered as very high risk, such as those over 70, those with an underlying health condition or are pregnant, have received specific guidance telling them to stay at home and take significant precautions for 12 weeks. This is called “shielding” and employers should accommodate this by allowing the employee to work from home.

Government advice to shield is paused from 1 August in England and Scotland, and from 17 August in Wales. This means that employees who have been shielding may now return to the workplace.

4. What happens if I have to close my business temporarily?

If you have the relevant clause in your employment documentation, you can place employees on “lay-off”, which means that they are not required to attend to work and receive statutory guarantee pay where required. This is a payment of £29 per day for a maximum of five days in each rolling three-month period, and is only payable to those who have been with you for at least a month.

On 20 March, the Government announced an emergency coronavirus grant to cover employees’ wages. Government grants will cover 80% of the salary of retained workers up to a total of £2500 a month. This is accessible through the Job Retention Scheme and offers an alternative to lay off.

5. Who does the Job Retention Scheme apply to?

The Scheme is open to all UK employers who had a PAYE scheme in place on 19 March 2020, is enrolled for PAYE online and has a UK bank account. Any organisation with employees can apply, including charities, not for profit organisations and recruitment agencies. The Government guidance for employers says that the Scheme is for employers who have been severely affected by the coronavirus. However, all employers are eligible to claim under the scheme and the Government recognises different organisations will face different impacts from coronavirus. The Scheme is set to end on 31 October 2020.

6. Can I still send people overseas on business?

Due to the guidance to avoid all non-essential travel, you would have to assess whether overseas travel is essential. In the rare case that it is, you would need to do a risk assessment involving the employee.

7. My employee's child's school has closed but I need to work. What can I do?

All employees have a right to take time off for dependants to deal with an emergency involving a dependant and the unexpected closure of a school would be classed as an emergency here. This means the employee has the right to take time off to sort out alternative childcare arrangements but not a right to take extended time off to look after the child while the school is shut.

Ultimately, an employee cannot be denied their right to time off for dependants but you can look to agree what happens in the long term, ie a move to flexible working or a change in working hours.

8. What hygiene measures should I take?

One of the ways you can stop the spread of a viral infection in the workplace is by promoting clean, healthy working habits. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends to:

  • cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing

  • throw away used tissues into a closed bin immediately

  • wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds with soap and water, or if not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water

  • avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.