Written by Brabners LLP
Coronavirus has now arrived in the UK. Thousands of people are infected worldwide and the figures continue to grow daily. According to government statistics as at 2 March 2020, 36 people have tested positive in the UK. In response to recent events, the UK Chief Medical Officer has chosen to raise risk levels from low to moderate. At present the full harm is unknown, but it is suggested that the virus is less deadly than SARS or MERS, but its ability to spread is far quicker. Naturally, companies with an international focus will be more at risk of the spread of infection.
Employers have a statutory responsibility to maintain health and safety in the workplace. What are employers to do? What systems can be implemented to stop the spread of the virus? If employees self-isolate, are they entitled to be paid? Read on to find out more!
Health and Safety precautions
The Government is issuing regular updates on the virus which you should check: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public.
Practical steps should be circulated around the company to advise employees of how to stop the spread of the virus. The NHS recommends that people should cover their nose and mouth when sneezing and use a disposable tissue before promptly cleaning hands after. Hand sanitiser should be provided in kitchen areas. Its use should be encouraged before food is eaten and after using public transport. Cleaners can also be required to take extra care when cleaning keyboards, headsets and communal areas. Employees should be told to call the NHS 111 Helpline if they fear infection (or 999 if it is an emergency).
Employees who have recently travelled back from places at risk
The ‘at-risk’ countries are currently: China, Iran, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Northern Italy, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Consider whether work trips to the aforementioned countries should be limited until the risk reduces. Video conferencing or telephone could also be considered as an alternative to travel.
Staff should be told to notify the company of any intended trips abroad for work or holidays, particularly if they will be travelling to an at-risk country.
If any employees are due to return from an at-risk country, they should get in touch with their line manager so that a decision can be taken about whether it would be appropriate for that person to return to work straight away and consider any other measures that may need to be put in place. Ensure that you read the latest Public Health England guidance when considering whether that person should self-isolate: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-specified-countries-and-areas/covid-19-specified-countries-and-areas-with-implications-for-returning-travellers-or-visitors-arriving-in-the-uk
Some companies have placed restrictions on employees undertaking personal travel to at-risk countries, however be aware that such an approach could carry a risk of indirect race discrimination. Any company policies should be proportionate, not dogmatic. If employees return from an infected zone but are not showing any symptoms, consider whether it would nevertheless be prudent for them to work from home for a period of time until the incubation period has passed. Could they work on paper-based projects, or conduct meetings via Skype, for example?
Sick leave and pay
Government and ACAS guidance suggests that sick leave should be allowed for those who have contracted coronavirus and have been placed in medically advised self-isolation. Sick pay will be determined according to the employee’s contract. Allowances may need to be made in getting a doctors sick note if the individual is in isolation. If employees are not entitled to sick pay, statutory sick pay may be available to them.
What if your employee is not sick, but they have nevertheless placed themselves in self-isolation? Should they still be paid? If the employee is fit to work and is able to do so from home then they should be paid in the usual way.
What if it is not feasible for them to work from home? Strictly, an employee who is not sick is not entitled to sick pay, but in our view it would be good practice to pay them sick pay in accordance with your policy, otherwise they may come into work which would increase the risk of spreading the virus.
It is not known whether and how the coronavirus outbreak may intensify, but preparation can help mitigate the harm it can cause to businesses. For example:
- make sure employees’ contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date;
- make sure 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;
- regularly check the Government and NHS updates.
This bulletin is for general guidance purposes only and should not be used for any other purpose.
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