Coronavirus – what do employers need to do?
13 February 2020
With coronavirus being among the main headlines every day at the moment, everyone is understandably nervous about the rate of spread and the potential death toll. This is particularly the case in the Brighton & Hove area where a small number of people have tested positive for the virus.
As the virus has already made its way to Sussex, we have been getting a number of queries from employers on how to deal with members of staff who may have been in contact with someone with coronavirus, or someone who may have been in contact with someone who in turn may have been in contact with someone with coronavirus – and so on! The media frenzy over the virus has made a lot of people panic in a way which they would never do where, for example, they had been in contact with someone who had flu. We thought it would be helpful to set out our suggestions for dealing with the situation as things currently stand.
Currently for most UK based employers the most pressing issue they need to deal with is managing their employees’ concerns about the situation.
The specific approach to take within your organisation will of course depend on the size and nature of your business (including the extent of any travel to affected areas) and your assessment of the risks. Employers will want to make sure they are seen to protect staff from a health, safety and welfare point of view, whilst also trying to minimise the impact on the day to day running of the business.
Some of our clients have employees who have been advised to isolate themselves due to their previous contact with someone who has been exposed to coronavirus. It may be possible for those people to do some work from home while they are in isolation, but if not then their duties will of course need to be covered. If they are off work because of medical advice then they would normally be treated as being off sick, but if they are actually well but having to isolate themselves (potentially at the employer’s request) then they would probably be able to argue that they should receive full pay.
In addition, it is likely that employers may see an increase in employees taking sick days as a precaution, or requesting to work from home because of their concerns, so those issues will need to be managed in line with your policies and procedures. While it is understandable that some people will be concerned, most employers will want to take a common-sense approach and stick to business as usual as far as possible.
If possible, it is best to communicate with your staff and work proactively to address any concerns as the situation evolves and develops. It is a good idea to give them a clear point of contact within the organisation (often this will be HR). There are useful resources to refer to at Public Health England and also the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, so it may be worth sharing that information with employees in order to educate them and hopefully prevent panic.
Some companies have been providing tissues and hand sanitiser in the workplace and putting up posters encouraging staff and visitors to use them. Employers will need to make a judgement on the best measures to take in their particular working environment.
Of course, no one knows at this stage how much more serious the outbreak may become, and it will be important for employers to keep adapting as things progress. In the meantime, unfortunately there have been some instances of discriminatory behaviour against those of Chinese ethnic origin, and as part of your plan of action it would be worth specifically reminding staff of your equality policies and the consequences if those are breached, in order to try to reduce the risk of anything like that happening in your workplace.
If you would like advice on employment law issues arising from coronavirus, then we can help. Please call us on 01243 836840 for a no obligation chat, or email us at [email protected].