Coronavirus - guidance for employers
Updated: Feb 16
Originally posted February 28th 2020, updated on 13th March 2020.
The outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus across the world and its appearance in the UK has caused considerable anxiety and concern among the general population. It will have a significant effect on workplaces and it is important for employers to carefully consider what they can do to protect their business and employees from viral epidemics, especially if the threat escalates.
Guidance and planning
It has become clear from media reports that there is considerable ignorance regarding the threat from the coronavirus outbreak, what to do about it and how to safeguard health. Employers should therefore issue clear guidance to employees who have recently travelled to an area where there have been outbreaks of viruses or who have been in contact with someone who has.
Employers should also consider putting in place a pandemic or infectious diseases contingency plan that addresses business continuity issues if the situation worsens. Even if a pandemic does not immediately affect the employer’s business or area in which they are located, it is good practice to have contingency plans in order to limit the risk posed by both this and other kinds of outbreak and any ensuing disruption caused.
Closing the workplace
The employer will have to assess whether the business should close their workplace during a pandemic or outbreak to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as coronavirus, in order to protect their employees. Further, employers should consider whether they have a duty to take special measures to protect those employees who are most at risk if they are exposed to the virus, especially where they are in close contact with someone that has. Public Health England defines close contact as being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or more or sharing a room for a prolonged period.
Employers should carefully consider how to manage an employee who has been potentially exposed to the illness. If an employee has symptoms associated with the virus, has been in contact with an infected person, or has been in contact with someone who has recently travelled to the crisis areas, should they be instructed not to come to work?
Although organisations owe a duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety, there is no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension of non-symptomatic employees returning from holiday or work in an area known to have experienced incidences of a virus. Employers should ensure that they do not succumb to the complaints of other employees, as third-party pressure from colleagues should not be regarded as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension.
If an employer or an employee has travelled to a significantly affected area or have been in close contact with someone who has and they feel unwell, it is essential to call the NHS 111 for advice immediately. The NHS will advise the employee on best practice.
Where an employee is returning from an affected area and appears to have possible symptoms, it is recommended that they should call their GP. If the GP determines that they are unfit for work, they should be treated as on sickness absence leave, in accordance with normal organisational procedures. Many viruses pose a special risk to those who are very young, elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions. Employers should bear this in mind if the employee is a parent, carer or has a medical condition. Some people may need to have longer sickness absences than others in order to fully recover and should not be penalised for doing so.
If the employee did enter the workplace, colleagues who have had contact with them should be made aware of the symptoms and advised to contact their GP should they experience them. If the GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but the employer is still concerned, then the employer may consider other options such as asking the employee to work from home in self-quarantine where possible. It is also important to keep in mind that an employee can self-certify as sick for up to seven days and may elect to do so, although they should not be pressured to do this.
Alternatively, the employer may consider medically suspending the employee on precautionary grounds for a brief amount of time, such medical suspension should be on full pay.
Other effects of virus outbreaks
Virus outbreaks can also affect the workplace in other ways. Where an employee has annual leave booked to go on holiday, they may wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice if they were planning to visit affected areas. This may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed. Where possible, employers should grant these requests, otherwise employees might feel pressured to take the holiday as originally planned, putting themselves at risk.
Where there is a virus or disease outbreak on a mass scale, the UK Government will typically advise against ‘all but essential travel’ to the affected area. Therefore, where an employer or their employees are expected to travel to such areas for business, it is recommended that the employer implements alternatives for important international business meetings, such as utilising Skype or conference calls.
Hygiene and health advice
Employers should direct employees to impartial advice during virus or disease outbreaks, such as that provided by the NHS or Public Health England. These organisations provide helpful, practical advice for limiting exposure and maintaining good hygiene. For example, hand hygiene is the first line of defence in preventing the spread of viruses, thus employees should be reminded to wash them frequently with soap and water or use hand sanitising gel.
In the workplace, it is recommended that tissues should be placed at each workstation and hand sanitisers at several locations around the workplace such as by printers or communal areas like kitchens and canteens. This will help to limit the spread of viruses. Employers should also advise employees to take the following precautions:
Always wash hands before eating.
Be especially careful in busy airports and other public transport systems about touching things and then touching faces.
Carry disposable tissues, cover noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing and dispose of the tissue carefully.
Do not share snacks from packets or bowls that others are dipping their fingers into.
Avoid shaking hands or cheek kissing if it is suspected that viruses are circulating.
Regularly clean commonly used surfaces and devices that are touched or handled.
More information about Coronavirus and the UK Government's advice is available on the Public Health England website.
If, after reading this article, you have concerns over whether your business is fully prepared for the coronavirus or any other health issue, why not talk to our rradarstation advisors? rradarstation is a resource available through the AXA MLP where policyholders can access rradar’s legal advisory team over the phone or by email and web gateway that provides over 2,000 articles, step-by-step guidance sheets, forms, sample letters and templates to download relating to running your business/organisation.