Last reviewed 23 September 2020

The risks from Covid-19 are still very much present in the workplace 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 and has now been named by the WHO as a worldwide pandemic.

The symptoms

The symptoms include a fever, cough, shortness of breath and loss or change of sense of smell or taste. 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 said to most likely 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. 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 in the risk category, for example over 70 or if 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.

If an employee has a confirmed case of coronavirus

Your normal sickness absence and pay policy will apply to employees who have coronavirus; however, you may wish to offer them furlough. Employers can now decide whether to continue with sick leave, or furlough employees. This means that sick leave and furlough are interchangeable but cannot be taken at the same time — it must be one or the other. If the employer decides on sick leave and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), they cannot claim wages via the Scheme, but they may be able to recover the SSP. Employers should bear in mind that the minimum furlough period which qualifies for the grant is three weeks, so any sickness absence which is not this length would not qualify. In addition, the guidance is clear that the Scheme is not to be used to top up pay for short sickness absences.

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 or furlough if appropriate (see above).

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 or shield

Emergency laws brought into place mean that employees who are self-isolating on Government guidance will, in almost all cases, be deemed incapable of working for SSP purposes. Further legislation extended SSP to those who are shielding (are remaining indoors and avoiding all face-to-face contact with others for 12 weeks due to their high risk of severe illness if they contracted coronavirus). This means that employees who meet the eligibility criteria including a lower limit on average earnings will qualify for SSP during self-isolation. Employers should be aware that the respective governments of England, Scotland and Wales have relaxed to relax shielding guidance, meaning that those who are shielding will no longer need to unless they are told to once again as a result of localised lockdown. From the date that shielding is no longer necessary, entitlement to SSP will cease but will be payable once again if the individual receives a further notification to shield, subject to the maximum length of SSP payable and other eligibility criteria. In England and Scotland, advice to shield ended on 31 July 2020, and 16 August in Wales.

Employees who are pregnant

Current guidance outlines that pregnant employees should be considered as clinically vulnerable unless they have a heart condition. Employers already have a legal duty to assess the risks that the workplace could pose to pregnant employees and must take steps to mitigate these. The threat of the coronavirus must therefore also be taken into account when decisions are made regarding whether pregnant employees can continue to conduct their role safely.

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.

It should be noted that guidance from the government instructs that office workers should ‘work from home if they can’ across the UK. In England, those that cannot work from home, such as workers in retail, can be asked to go into the workplace provided it is Covid-secure.

Foreign travel and quarantine

From 10 July 2020, a 14-day quarantine period will apply to individuals returning to the UK from a country that is not on the travel corridor exempt list applicable to the country of return. This includes British nationals and those who live in the UK who will need to self-isolate for the required period before going out to work.

Travel corridor exemptions applicable can be found here:

Prior to 10 July, stricter provisions were in place which meant that, subject to limited exemptions, all individuals returning to the UK had to self-isolate. Although the requirement to self-isolate is less extensive now, the practical effect of the remaining requirement is the fact that employees who return from certain countries will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return. This will potentially turn one week of annual leave into a period of three weeks’ absence; two weeks of annual leave into four weeks’ absence, etc. This will become an increasingly common issue as more relaxation on overseas travel is implemented.

Perhaps the most significant practical effect of this is the fact that employees who have travelled abroad on holiday will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return. This will potentially turn one week of annual leave into a period of three weeks’ absence; two weeks of annual leave into four weeks’ absence, etc. This will become an increasingly common issue as more relaxation on overseas travel is implemented.

When an annual leave request is received, employers should:

  • identify whether the employee intends to travel overseas

  • if so, check whether any of the exemptions apply

  • if not, ensure the employee understands that they will need to self-isolate on their return

  • consider whether, in light of the self-isolation period, it is possible to accommodate the additional absence; if not, employers may choose to refuse the annual leave request

  • when deciding whether the absence can be accommodated, consider whether the employee can work from home for the self-isolation period

  • if the absence can be accommodated, consider how it will be covered.

Employers may attempt to agree an additional period of annual leave will be used to cover either all of the period or some of it. It should be remembered that employers can require an employee to take annual leave by giving the appropriate notice, ie twice the length of the period of leave in question. In the case of a full 14-day self-isolation period, notice would need to be at least 28 days. This may be preferable if an employee has a substantial amount of annual leave remaining before the end of the leave year.

Statutory sick pay is not payable for periods of self-isolation due to travel from overseas.

Closure of business

Subject to localised lockdown restrictions, some businesses may be asked to close.. Where employers or employees do not qualify for the Job Retention Scheme (below), lay off may be an appropriate alternative. 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. From July 2020, employers may agree a combination of part-time work and furlough with workers and continue to claim for wages for the furloughed hours. From August 2020, employers have begun contributing to the wage costs of furloughed workers.

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. Schools have now reopened across the UK, with the government committed to only closing them again as a ‘last resort’.

Currently, school children will be asked to self-isolate if another child in their year group tests positive for Covid-19. In this situation, working parents may need to facilitate emergency childcare.

NHS test and trace service

On 28 May 2020, the NHS test and trace service was launched in England. The service will:

  • provide testing for anyone who has symptoms of coronavirus to find out if they have the virus

  • get in touch with anyone who has had a positive test result to help them share information about any close recent contacts they have had

  • alert those contacts, where necessary, and notify them they need to self-isolate to help stop the spread of the virus.

The Government states that, by following instructions to self-isolate, people who have had close recent contact with someone with coronavirus will be protecting their family, friends, colleagues and other people around them, and will play a direct role in stopping the spread of the virus.

When someone first develops symptoms and orders a test, they will be encouraged to alert the people that they have had close contact with in the 48 hours before symptoms started. If any of those close contacts are colleagues, the person who has developed symptoms may wish to (but is not obliged to) ask their employer to alert those colleagues. At that stage, those close contacts are not advised to self-isolate, but they:

  • must avoid individuals who are at high-risk of contracting coronavirus, for example, because they have pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory issues

  • must take extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene and in watching out for symptoms.

“Close contact” means:

  • having face-to-face contact with someone (less than 1 metre away)

  • spending more than 15 minutes within 2 metres of someone

  • travelling in a car or other small vehicle with someone (even on a short journey) or close to them on a plane.

Those who test positive will be asked, via the service, whether they have had any such close contact in the 48 hours before they developed symptoms and the time since they developed symptoms.

The service will then contact anyone they report as having had close contact with and tell them to begin self-isolation for 14 days from their last contact with the person who has tested positive, even if they do not feel unwell.

The practical effect of this service is that many more individuals are likely to self-isolate. In addition, large parts of a workforce, or an entire workforce, may receive an alert telling them they should self-isolate because one member of the workforce has tested positive for coronavirus. Employers can help to combat this by ensuring that employees work from home where possible, or implementing strict social distancing and hygiene measures in the workplace where home working is not possible.

Although self-isolation is voluntary at this stage, the Government has stated it will be made mandatory if necessary.

The Government has put together guidance for employers, which stresses that their role in the system is vital by:

  • making their workplaces as safe as possible

  • encouraging workers to heed any notifications to self-isolate and supporting them when in isolation.

It acknowledges that, although this may seem disruptive for businesses, it is less disruptive than an outbreak of coronavirus in the workplace will be, and far less disruptive than periods in lockdown.

Employers should support employees who need to self-isolate and must not ask them to attend the workplace.

If an employee needs to self-isolate, employers should consider whether they are able to work from home. This might include finding alternative work that can be completed at home during the period of self-isolation.

Employees who cannot work from home will be entitled to receive SSP in line with the guidance on self-isolation given above due to further legislative amendments. Alternatively, the employer may agree that a period of annual leave is to be taken so that full pay is maintained, or another form of paid leave that is available to the employee.

Giving options to ensure full pay is maintained may be particularly important due to the possibility that an employee may be reluctant to self-isolate if it means a drop in pay. Employers may wish to strongly encourage employees who receive a notification to make this known, and to self-isolate, in order to protect the rest of the workforce.

The NHS test and trace service will provide a notification that can be used as evidence that someone has been told to self-isolate. This notification will be needed to make a claim to the SSP Rebate Scheme.

A similar scheme, called “test and protect” is in place in Scotland.

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.

  • 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 is now online or the event has been cancelled.

  • If meetings must take place, provide a large room so participants can be at least two metres 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.