How should organisations react to the coronavirus outbreak?

Posted: 03/03/20

Most people will be aware of Coronavirus and the rate at which it is spreading. New cases are being reported on a daily basis across the world.  In fact, the only continent where there are no cases is Antarctica. People returning from countries where cases have been reported, or who are showing symptoms, are being advised to self-isolate for 14 days, but what does this mean for employers?  

Organisations owe a duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety and to protect employees against reasonably foreseeable risks. In light of this, organisations should have a plan in place to ensure they are prepared for an escalation of the outbreak and what this means for their employees.   Any steps taken should be based on official current advice at the time. Panic should not be the dictating force behind any policies. Employers should be guided by the latest advice provided by the NHS, the Foreign Office and the World Health Organisation. 

Key recommended steps

As a minimum, we would advise employers to follow these 6 steps:

  1. Keep everyone regularly updated on the virus outbreak and actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace (by email or other appropriate means);
  2. Ensure managers know how to spot symptoms of the coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes – for example sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus (including ensuring all employee contact details are up to date);
  3. Ensure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly (consider giving out hand sanitisers and tissues to staff and encourage their use and their hygienic disposal and consider the use of face masks according to any current official advice);
  4. Consider if any travel planned is essential (monitor affected areas regularly to avoid travel to such places if at all possible). Organisations with international offices, including in mainland Europe, should consider suspending any future travel of employees between offices unless absolutely necessary. Organisations should not insist that an employee travels to affected areas for work related purposes and should advise employees against travel to such areas for both work and holiday purposes. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice should be regularly reviewed and heeded. Practical alternatives to travel include postponing a trip, and holding meetings via Skype or video conference where possible; 
  5. Consider opportunities, and organise logistics, for employees to work from home in the short-term, or in the future if the situation deteriorates. Although not practical in all cases, homeworking might provide a temporary solution, so it’s worth getting prepared (for example, by organising lap top distributions, communication channels and conducting home working risk assessments where possible); and
  6. Regularly review the latest advice and implement policies reflecting the most up to date situation. Remember, everything is a moving feast at the moment.

Employees returning from affected areas

The NHS currently confirm that most people can continue to go to work, school and other public places. However, individuals need to stay away from public places, including places of work, and self-isolate, if they’ve recently returned from areas of particular high risk (as set out on the NHS website), even if they have no symptoms, or if they have been in close contact with someone with confirmed coronavirus. Employees are also advised to self-isolate if returning from various other specified areas and are showing symptoms. Such individuals should therefore not come into work.

Do I need to pay my employees? 

If an employee is showing symptoms after having been exposed to risk and/ or has been diagnosed with the coronavirus then, yes, the employee will be entitled to his/her normal sick pay (statutory, or contractually enhanced if relevant). However, if the employee is not ill but is simply following official advice to self-isolate and cannot work from home, technically they are not legally entitled to be paid (unless their contract provides otherwise). However, the advantages to the employer of paying the employee while he/she is off work will far outweigh any short-term cost in the majority of cases, so paying employees during their period of self-isolation is highly advisable and is certainly best practice, as confirmed recently by government health department and ACAS guidance.

Employers can request that employees stay at home in order to protect the wellbeing of other staff, but this period would generally need to be paid if at the organisation’s request.  

Employees who are off need to maintain contact with their manager and this should be made clear to employees.

Other concerns for employers

Booked annual leave – Employees may wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice if they were planning to visit affected areas and this may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed by the employer. These requests should be granted where possible. Otherwise, employees might feel pressured to risk taking the holiday as originally planned.

Take care not to discriminate – If the employer takes measures such as asking staff to wear protective face masks or to stay at home, they must not single anyone out, for example simply based on their race or ethnicity.

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