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Coronavirus: what employers need to know

Anyone who has watched the news, listened to the radio or read a newspaper in the last few weeks will be well aware of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the havoc this is causing across the world.

The World Health Organisation has now declared this a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Not only does the virus pose a risk to the health of individuals, but we are all responsible for ensuring that spread of the virus is minimised as much as possible. This means a potential challenge for employers in terms of minimising the impact of staff illness and other issues around trying to contain and halt the spread of the disease as much as possible.

In this article we deal with some recent frequently asked questions from clients, as well as anticipating some of the more unusual HR related situations a pandemic can bring about. For up to date medical advice on how to deal with coronavirus, please see current government guidance, which is kept under regular review.

What to do when someone has to self-isolate?

Public Health England’s current advice is that individuals should self-isolate (remain at home for 14 days and limit contact with others) in certain situations, for example those who have recently travelled back from an area where the infection rate for coronavirus is high, and have symptoms and are awaiting a test result, or those who are identified as being a close contact of someone who has the virus. Government advice on who should self-isolate is under regular review, but what if one of your employees falls into one of these categories?

Can I force someone to self- isolate?

Yes. Where an employee is willing and able to attend work the ability for the employee to refuse to allow them to do so is limited. However, in this very unusual situation the employer has responsibilities to the individual, other staff members, customers and public health in general, and so if the individual is within a category of those who public health England deem should self-isolate then the employer can prevent them from attending work. Any individuals who refuse to self- isolate in these circumstances may be subject to disciplinary action.

Are employees entitled to be paid when self-isolating?

Where someone is able to work from home then their work will continue as normal (unless they are unwell, then of course they will simply be on sickness absence and paid accordingly, regardless of what the reason for that sickness is), however in many industries where individuals are required to be physically present in order to do their job that will not be possible.

Where an employee is asymptomatic but is self-isolating, then there is no right as such to be paid. However, as confirmed by Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, where an employee is self-isolating following written medical advice from their doctor or NHS 111 they are entitled to be paid statutory sick pay.

What if someone takes time off because their child’s school is closed as a result of coronavirus?

Individuals would be entitled to take this as Time off for Dependents, which is the right to take time off, unpaid, in order to deal with this disruption to the normal arrangements for care of their child.

What if someone doesn’t want to attend work as they are afraid of catching coronavirus?

In most circumstances, a conversation with the employee, explaining the processes you are putting in place to manage any risk, e.g. encouraging hand washing and self-isolation where appropriate, will be sufficient to persuade them that they should continue to attend work. However, for those groups of people who may be at greater risk from the impact of the virus, such as people over the age of 65, or those with underlying health conditions, or pregnant employees, then an employer should take these concerns particularly seriously and where possible come to an agreement with the individual as to how this situation can be managed.

It is possible of course that an individual may become so anxious about attending work due to the risks posed by coronavirus that they become unwell as a result of their anxiety. This should be managed in line with normal sickness absence procedures.

Practical tips for employers

  • Ensure you have hand washing facilities readily available.
  • Consider displaying notices reminding people of the importance of handwashing and what to do if they develop symptoms or have travelled to high risk areas.
  • Ask employees to tell you if they have travelled/intend to travel to areas where infection rates are high.
  • Put in place any infrastructure required to enable your business to run smoothly if employees are off sick/need to self isolate/you need to shut down for a period of time.
  • Reassure employees that there is no need to panic and that sensible precautions are being taken and that you will continue to follow public health guidance.
  • Explain that those employees who fall within one of the categories of mandatory self-isolation as determined by public health England should not attend work.
  • Halt work related travel to areas where the Foreign and Commonwealth office have recommended that travel is avoided.

For further information, please get in touch.