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Coronavirus: What do UK employers need to know?

Coronavirus: What do UK employers need to know?

Ben Smith and Tahl Tyson - 27 February 2020

As of 10 am on 27 February, there are 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK. The risk level remains low for individuals, with a low risk of catching coronavirus in the workplace. However, as COVID-19 continues to spread, employers should remain informed of the latest developments and plan accordingly.

Official guidance now recommends that in addition to the countries set out in the main body of this article, anyone who has returned from any of the following since 19 February should call NHS 111, stay indoors and avoid contact with other people even if you do not have symptoms:

  • Iran;
  • specific lockdown areas in northern Italy as designated by the Government of Italy (Codogno, Castiglione d’Adda, Casalpusterlengo, Fombio, Maleo, Somaglia, Bertonico, Terranova dei Passerini, Castelgerundo, San Fiorano, Vo’ Euganeo);
  • ‘special care zones’ in South Korea as designated by the Government of the Republic of South Korea (currently Daegu and Cheongdo); and
  • Hubei province (including anyone who has returned in the past 14 days)

Anyone returning from the following areas since 19 February who has coronavirus symptoms (cough, fever or shortness of breath) should stay indoors at home, avoid contact with other people immediately and call NHS 111.

  • northern Italy (anywhere north of Pisa, Florence and Rimini);
  • Vietnam;
  • Cambodia;
  • Laos; and
  • Myanmar

 If your employee falls within the above risk group, they should be told not to come into work until they have been cleared to do so by their doctor. Employers should also re-assess non-essential business travel plans in light of these developments.

Reports of schools and businesses taking the decision to close temporarily following a coronavirus scare are becoming more common. Employers should consider their potential exposure to coronavirus risk (e.g. if employees have recently travelled to affected areas) and plan accordingly for a potential temporary closure of the workplace at short notice. This may include a plan to allow for work to continue at home, where possible.

COVID-19 continues to develop

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (now officially called COVID-19), first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, has understandably hit headlines in recent weeks, with confirmed cases growing internationally. Risk to the public in the UK has been assessed as ‘moderate’. Risk to individuals is still classed as ‘low’ and, at the time of writing, there have been only 9 confirmed cases in the UK.

While COVID-19 is not currently a major health issue in the UK, UK employers will, as always, need to meet their duty of care to their employees and should consider:

  •  Keeping on top of the latest official guidance;
  •  How to handle employees who are high risk or subject to quarantine;
  •  How to avoid discrimination;
  • Reconsidering any non-essential business travel; and
  •  Assessing workplace health and safety.

Stay informed and communicate accurately

Employers should ensure they communicate to staff in an accurate and even-handed way. This may be a stressful situation for some employees and employers should avoid causing undue stress and anxiety. In particular:

  • Employers should stay informed of official government guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Foreign Office;
  • Managers and HR should not provide medical opinions about the effects and spread of COVID-19.
  • Employers may find it helpful to identify an individual or team that will be responsible for the organisation’s response and appropriately fielding employee enquiries.
  • Communications and advice should reflect only the government or occupational health guideline and other official sources — misinformation should be corrected promptly if it arises.

Employees at risk or subject to quarantine

Official guidance as of 20 February 2020, is for anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and is experiencing cough or fever or shortness of breath, to stay indoors, call NHS 111 and not visit their GP, a pharmacy or A&E.

If you have an employee who falls within this high-risk group (or who is advised by doctors to ‘self-quarantine), they should be told not to come into work until they have been advised by doctors that the incubation period is over and all symptoms have cleared.

Employees may, depending on their symptoms, take some or all of this period as sick leave in accordance with company policy. If it is possible for employees to work from home and they are well enough to work, they should be permitted to do so.

If an employee is required to remain away from the workplace during a quarantine period and is able to work from home, they should be paid their normal salary. If an employee who is required not to attend the workplace cannot work from home but is well enough to work, they should continue to be paid as normal.

Deferring non-essential business travel

The Foreign Office has advised against all travel to China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China. Many airlines have also cancelled flights to and from mainland China. The Foreign Office website should be consulted regularly for updates on travel guidance.

Employers may therefore need to reconsider whether any non-essential business travel should be postponed. This decision will require a balancing of all relevant factors, including the destination, current government warnings in place, and an individual employee’s circumstances and concerns.

Employers should particularly consider any travel where the employee (or someone they live with) is at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they are exposed to COVID-19 because of age, pregnancy, or a pre-existing medical condition such as respiratory problems. Employers should consult with the individual, their doctors, and in some cases, an occupational health specialist to assess whether travel can safely proceed.

Consider discrimination risks

Employers should be conscious of the risks of discrimination in how both they and employees respond to COVID-19. Employers should remember that they may be liable for the discriminatory acts of employees. There have unfortunately been reports across the world of racist abuse being directed at those perceived to be Chinese and employers should be aware to this behaviour in the workplace.

A policy requiring employees who have recently travelled to mainland China or another affected area (currently assessed as Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau) to remain at home for 14 days may be indirectly discriminatory if it affects more staff of a particular ethnic origin than others. It will however be open to an employer to argue that the policy was a justifiable and reasonable step to take – and employers are likely to be able to succeed in this argument.

Any policies in response to COVID-19 should apply to all employees and be based on potential risks, as assessed in line with official guidance, otherwise employers risk direct discrimination claims. If an employer were to target Chinese employees, rather than those with recent travel links to affected areas, this would be a very significant discrimination risk.

Prevention and workplace health and safety

There is, at the time of writing, no vaccine for COVID-19 (though scientists are working to develop one). The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. While there is currently no scientific consensus on how COVID-19 is transmitted, conventional methods for avoiding the spread of flu and the common cold apply.

It may be appropriate for employers to remind staff of basic steps that can be taken to guard against illness, such as Public Health England’s "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” method of preventing influenza and other communicable illnesses (“Catch” any sneezes in a tissue, “Bin” any tissues immediately and “Kill” the virus by washing hands with soap and warm water).

Employers may also want to provide additional cleaning materials in the workplace (tissues, hand-sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and so on) to encourage employees to take preventative steps.

Every workplace is different and will have different risk factors – an open plan office may be more susceptible to the spread of illness so employers may want to be more rigorous in their approach there.

Employers should also be conscious of the increased risks to any particularly vulnerable employees – those with preexisting respiratory problems or compromised immune systems or pregnant employees – and take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of these employees.

Employers have specific statutory health and safety obligations in respect of employees who are pregnant. Depending on an assessment of the risks, employers may need to make changes to a pregnant employee’s working conditions, or in more extreme cases where those changes cannot mitigate risk, the employee may need to be offered suitable alternative employment on a temporary basis or suspended from work on medical grounds (with full pay).