The situation with coronavirus is changing at an increasingly fast rate and is being monitored globally with understandable concern. With this in mind, we have set out below answers to a number of key questions that employers should be aware of in order to minimise any disruption that coronavirus may bring to their business.
Now may also be a prudent time to review your business continuity plans in the event that you need to deal with high levels of staff absence.
You may wish to read the recently updated Acas guidance for employers and employees which is available here.
What are the key considerations for employers?
The Acas guidance sets out good practice as follows:
1. Keep staff updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace;
2. Ensure staff contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date;
3. Ensure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus;
4. Ensure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly;
5. Provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them;
6. Consider if protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations;
7. Consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential.
In addition, employers should:
1. Consider which of their employees may be at particular risk (e.g. pregnant employees, employees with pre-existing health conditions and employees with compromised immune systems), carry out risk assessments and take reasonable steps to provide a safe working environment for them; and
2. Remember that you must not treat an employee differently because of their race or ethnicity.
What happens if employees do not wish to go to work because they are worried about catching coronavirus?
Employers should listen to any concerns, and if the concerns are genuine, consider how best to resolve them in order to protect the health and safety of all staff. This may include, for example, offering flexible working or agreeing a period of holiday or unpaid leave.
Are employees entitled to be paid during self-isolation?
Clearly, if a member of staff is unwell with the coronavirus, they should be paid in accordance with your usual sick pay/leave arrangements.
The government has also stated that, if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee to self-isolate, they should receive any statutory sick pay (“SSP”) due to them. Yesterday the government confirmed that SSP would be payable from the first day of work, not the fourth. Any contractual sick pay should also be paid.
What if an employee is not sick but an employer tells them not to come in to work?
This situation may arise where, for example, an employee has recently returned from China or another affected area. Such employees should receive their usual pay.
How can an employer prepare for significant staff absences?
You may wish to consider the following (some of which will depend on an employee’s contractual rights):
1. Is there scope to redeploy staff with transferrable skills?
2. Can staff work from home effectively?
3. Can staff be asked to work longer/different hours?
4. Can you recruit temporary or agency staff?
5. How will you clearly communicate your procedures, for example, to take time off to care for dependants?
How does coronavirus affect work-related travel and overseas assignments?
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office currently advises against all but essential travel to specific regions (the latest guidance is here). Employers should always assess the risks and benefits of travel in light of the latest guidance, and should always bear in mind the duty to safeguard employees’ health and safety.
In addition, the World Health Organisation advises that:
1. Employers should avoid sending employees who may be at higher risk of serious illness to areas where the virus is spreading; and
2. All employees travelling to locations reporting coronavirus should be briefed by a qualified health professional.
What if someone becomes ill at work?
Clearly, employers will need to follow the latest guidance available. The Acas guidance here sets out the current guidance on this should the situation arise.