Up to a fifth of the UK workers could be "off sick at the same time" if there is a coronavirus epidemic in the UK, says the Government in its latest plans. It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there could be "significant expansion" in UK cases.
The coronavirus disease (officially called covid-19) was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation in January 2020. In light of the increasing health risk, it is important to act now and ensure your organisation is prepared and has plans in place to protect the health and safety of its staff, and others. It is time to be proactive.
Does your organisation have a plan in place? What will you do if you or your employees become infected or have been travelling in areas at risk of infection?
The employer's duty
Employers have a legal duty to protect health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers should take all reasonably practicable steps to achieve this. This includes making sure that workers and others are protected from harm and effectively controlling any risks to health that could rise in the workplace.
Reducing the risk of contracting coronavirus: good practice
The risk level of contracting coronavirus in Europe has been increased to "high". At this stage, it is important that we all keep monitoring guidance and advice issued from the Government, the World Health Organisation and health professionals.
We suggest that employers appoint a particular person (we would suggest a senior HR person) to take the lead; to conduct a workplace assessment, to provide general updates to staff, to consider the employer's policies on sick pay, home working, etc, and to be a point of contact for those employees with queries and concerns. We suggest that emails and guidance are circulated regularly, and prominent notices about careful washing of hands and the using and disposing of tissues when coughing and sneezing are placed around the workplace. Although obvious, it is important that sufficient hand wash, hot water and hand sanitiser are available and kept stocked up. Ensure that desks, phones, computers, etc are routinely cleaned. Employees contact details should be updated and accessible, so they can be kept in the loop if out of the office or if workplace arrangements quickly change. Emergency contact details should also be accessible. It has been suggested that a private room or space be set up in the workplace (if possible) in case an employee becomes ill at work, so they can follow NHS direction, isolate themselves and call 111. Employees who are due to travel to high risk areas on business should cancel or change their plans, and employers should consider any insurance policies in place to cover related costs.
This is an evolving situation. It is therefore important to be flexible as a business and be prepared to make (urgent) changes in the workplace and take all necessary steps if/as the outbreak develops. This may include, in extreme cases, complete business closure for a temporary period. Communication will be key. Some further considerations follow.
Remote working is likely to increase. Employees who have returned from the Government’s official “at-risk” areas should self-isolate for 14 days. This means they should not attend work in this period. Employers should allow for flexible working from home for this period (and it should be generally encouraged during any outbreak) if possible; via laptops, remote access, mobile phones and devices. While employees are working from home, increased communication is important and both sides should be kept updated. Employers should keep records of all those working from home, the dates of any self-isolation and dates of return to work for such employees, along with their contact details. Employers should also be mindful of any “working from home” and “own device” policies they have in place from time-to-time and send a copy of all such policies to the relevant employee(s) for their reference. Data protection policies must be considered; if employees are dealing with personal data and confidential information, they must continue to comply with data protection legislation while out of the workplace.
If working from home is not possible, employees should not be forced to come in to work during the self-isolation period or if displaying symptoms (this would of course risk a spread of the virus and risks the health and safety of others).
As to pay during such periods of advised self-isolation (where an employee is not showing symptoms but following Government guidance and staying at home) employers will have to consider whether to pay the employee, and whether it is sick pay or normal pay. Much will depend on the circumstances of the employee, the employee’s contract of employment and the employer’s policies. If the employee has received a sick note from a GP advising that he or she is too ill to work, or that they should self-isolate due to risk, it could be treated in line with usual sick pay policies, and the employee should receive statutory sick pay and any enhanced contractual payment. However, there will be many circumstances where the employee is self-isolating for 14 days based on general health guidance (without a specific doctor’s note). In those situations, the employee would not be eligible to statutory sick pay. However, we suggest that it is good practice to pay employees as normal, per their usual contractual terms during periods of self-isolation. Any decisions on changing pay for employees should only be taken after legal advice.
We suggest employers and employees read the guidance published by ACAS, accessible here: https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus and the guidance issued by the Government, accessible here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19