As the number of cases in the UK and abroad continue to rise, 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. This information is being continually checked and updated.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that coronaviruses 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.

Cases in several countries have now emerged, with the majority of infections appearing in individuals who originate from, or who have travelled to, Wuhan. However, it has now been named by the WHO as a worldwide pandemic.

The symptoms

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

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.

Employer considerations

Latest Government guidance

The advice is under constant review and is subject to change, in particular, the list of countries affected. You can keep up to date on latest Government developments here.

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.

Wellbeing

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.

Give employees the facts

The risk of becoming infected will differ depending on personal circumstances but it is important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concern proportionate to the risk and encourage good hygiene.

Travel advice

For the latest travel advice, you can keep up to date with the latest Government guidance here.

Business travel

Employers should consider alternatives which may include postponing a business trip until the risk of infection no longer exists, or carrying out meetings via Skype or video conferencing, where possible. Employees may be reluctant to go to any country where there have been confirmed cases of the virus.

If travel is deemed necessary then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk, with controls identified and implemented according to the nature and severity of the risk. Controls should be identified through a travel risk assessment and travellers themselves should be involved in the process.

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.

Annual leave

Some employees may have plans to travel to affected areas 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. The current lockdown is likely to make the vast majority of travel impossible in any case.

If an employee has a confirmed case of Coronavirus

Your normal sickness absence and pay policy will apply to employees who have Coronavirus.

If an employee has returned from an affected area, then develops symptoms and stays at home

This is best treated as sickness absence due to the display of symptoms and your normal policies will apply. You may wish to consider other options such as working from home as a temporary measure while the employee self-isolates.

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 an affected area 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 but does not live with them) then the best advice is to follow the Government and NHS advice and advise the employee to self-isolate as needed.

Employees who self-isolate

Emergency laws brought into place mean that employees who are self-isolating on Government guidance will be deemed incapable of working for statutory sick pay purposes. This means that employees who meet the eligibility criteria including a lower limit on average earnings will qualify for SSP during self-isolation.

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.

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 ban employees travelling 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.

Furlough and the Job Retention Scheme

The Government has announced its plans for financial assistance to help employers retain employees for an extended period of time, although offering no work, and avoid lay-offs. This is called the Job Retention Scheme which involves employers placing their employees on “furlough”. This is a term which is typically used in the US and essentially means designating employees as furloughed workers where they do not work, but are retained on your books to be brought back in when you need them. Employers who do this will be able to obtain a grant from the Government to cover 80% of “furloughed employees” wages, to a maximum of £2500 per employee per month.

Closure of schools

On 18 March, Boris Johnson confirmed that all schools in England are closed as of 20 March, in addition to school closures already announced for Scotland and Wales earlier that day. Schools in Northern Ireland are also closed as of 23 March.

Hygiene measures

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.

Employer checklist

Assess the risk of exposure in your business operations including any overseas workplaces

Remind yourself of your business contingency plan/pandemic contingency plan

Consider bringing employees who are located abroad home

Make arrangements for any overseas meetings to be held via Skype, etc or postpone them

Send communication to all employees reminding them of good hygiene measures

Ensure there are sufficient soap supplies available and consider providing tissues and hand sanitiser to the workforce

Speak with those in charge of cleaning the workplace and ask for frequent deep cleans

Ask employees to keep you informed of any overseas holiday travel so you can manage their return

Remind employees of your annual leave cancellation procedures

Decide how you will deal with pay during self-isolation, eg will it be no pay, sick pay or full pay?

Create a work contingency plan in case key members of the workforce are absent

Ensure managers are aware of coronavirus symptoms so they can spot it quickly

Assess whether employees can work from home instead of coming to the workplace

Consider postponing any large work-related events, eg conferences

Check whether employees are due to go to any large external events, eg training courses and whether attendance can be postponed

If meetings must take place, provide a large room so participants can be at least a metre away from each other

Check whether you have a lay off with reduce pay clause in place in the event that you need to close the business temporarily

Remind employees of any employee assistance programme available to them if they have general concerns about virus

Seek professional advice

For professional advice on dealing with any HR matters, speak to a qualified consultant on 0844 561 8149.

Last reviewed 31 March 2020