How will coronavirus affect employers and businesses?

Please note the information contained within this blog is correct at the time of writing and is subject to change. Any quoted figures may have changed since publication. Consult a lawyer if you are in doubt.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been dominating global news and there’s been a lot of questions and practical points for employers, employees and businesses. I’m taking this opportunity to set out some information and guidance but with an extremely big caveat – the situation is constantly changing and evolving and it’s best to seek proper and timely legal advice if you are in doubt.

How bad is the situation?

The World Health Organisation (“WHO”) has declared coronavirus as a global emergency and reported cases have continued to rise.

Coronavirus is causing severe disruption to the global economy with reports showing that the virus has wiped off $1.5 trillion from the value of global shares.

With confirmed cases in the UK rapidly increasing, employers are now having to respond rapidly and plan for a potential pandemic. Even if the spread is more localised, there are a number of steps which employees should be taking and a number of questions that employers are likely to want to consider when formulating plans for dealing with the situation.

The legal position

Employers are under a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of their workers. Employers are also generally required to carry out risk assessments to identify potential harm in the workplace and implement measures to avoid or reduce these risks.

Practical steps

Below I have outlined some practical steps you may wish to think about.

Keep employees informed

It’s important to keep employees informed. This may involve providing up-to-date information and guidance about coronavirus. Employees should be made aware of the symptoms, the best ways of preventing the spread of the virus and what to do if they experience symptoms. Posters can be a helpful way of informing employees. These can be placed around the office in communal areas such as kitchens or corridors.

These posters should ensure employees are aware of maintaining good hygiene standards. Employers should consider other hygiene measures and provide adequate facilities and arrangements for employees’ welfare at work – this will include sanitary and handwashing facilities; particularly as handwashing can help to prevent the virus spreading.

The Government has recommended people to wash hands under hot or warm water with soap for 20 seconds.

Report, record and manage high risk individuals

If you’ve got an employee who has recently come back from their weekend away in a northern Italian vineyard, chances are they’re a ‘high-risk’ individual.

As of 3rd March 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has published guidance that anyone who has returned to the UK from the following areas in the last 14 days should “self-quarantine” and stay away from work, even if they are not displaying symptoms:

  • Iran
  • Specific areas in Northern Italy
  • Special care zones in South Korea
  • Hubei province in China

This information is subject to change so I’d recommend keeping up-to-date on the FCO website as well.

The employer can also request that employees notify them if over the past 14 days the employee has travelled to or intend to travel to any other country which the FCO has deemed a high-risk. At the time of writing these are: China, Hong Kong, Macao, Cambodia, Iran, northern Italy, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam).

Employers should determine on a case-by-case basis how to deal with the employee’s situation. Employers should not automatically force an employee to self-isolate because they have travelled to those specific countries. Taking any steps to force them to do so (even if under pressure from other members of staff) may amount to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. Employees may be willing to work from home for a period of time (the incubation period for the virus is estimated to be between two and 14 days) and employers should consider whether to allow flexible working or not.

Paying employees who self-isolate or who are symptomatic

It would be obvious that if a worker is genuinely unwell with coronavirus or any other virus, you should pay them in accordance with your usual sick pay or leave policy. If you don’t have one already, I really recommend creating one for your company. And you’re just in luck, Rocket Lawyer has a Sickness Policy you can create.

The position becomes less clear if the worker is self-isolating in line with the latest government guidance, but are not (outwardly, at any rate) actually unwell.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary has stated that “self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes. That is a very important message for employers and those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick, because it is for medical reasons”. The Government has also said they would introduce emergency legislation for workers self-isolating or are off sick by allowing statutory sick pay (SSP) to be paid from day 1 of sickness absence. Usually SSP is only paid after 4 consecutive days of the employee being sick.

ACAS has recommended in its guidance on the coronavirus that employers treat such leave as sick leave and follow their usual sick pay policy or agree for the time to be taken as holiday.

It would clearly be best practice to pay employees their normal pay in these circumstances and it’s been noted that the delicious sausage roll provider, Greggs Bakery has confirmed they will pay any staff member who needs to self-isolate. This approach has been highly praised, not least because otherwise employees may try to come into work, putting others at risk.

However, I strongly recommend that employers get specific legal advice before adopting or agreeing to anything, as there may be circumstances where this approach is not workable or practical. It may also lead to ‘copycat’ absences once employees are aware that company policy is that they will be paid as normal when absent due to self-isolation.

If an employee is able to work from home, this makes things simpler, as the employer should allow this and continue to pay the employee as normal.

Keep yourself informed

This is a given regardless of whether you’re an employer or an employee. I strongly recommend keeping informed with the latest Government guidance and any information from the NHS, WHO and PHE. For ease of reference, I’ve listed some sites below which you can use if you want to keep up-to-date. It’ll be important to stop the spread of ‘fake news’ and ensure everyone has accurate and clear information.

The WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that misinformation was “making the work of our heroic workers even harder”. He added, “At the WHO we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response.”.

Alan Cheung