Coronavirus – Employers must get prepared

The coronavirus (COVID-19), an illness that attacks the lungs and airways, has affected around 78,000[1] people in China, swept over Italy and continues to spread. Martha McKinley, Employment Law Solicitor and Senior Associate at Stephensons Solicitors LLP, is warning employers to agree legal and health and safety procedures for employees in case they need to deal with cases.

Risk to the UK workforce

The NHS has stated that UK chief medical officers have raised the risk to the public from ‘low’ to ‘moderate’.[2] But the risk to individuals remains low. It is advised if you do have symptoms, which include a cough, a high temperature and shortness of breath and have visited Wuhan or the Hubei province in China, Iran, northern Italy, South Korea and other areas of the Far East in the last two weeks to call 111.

The virus is spread in cough droplets and employees are advised to avoid germs by covering their mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, putting tissues in the bin after use, washing their hands and avoiding contact with people who are affected.[3]

Business response plans

It is sensible for UK businesses to consider the impact an outbreak of  coronavirus might have on its staff and operations more generally and have a response plan in place. If managers are faced with staff who are unwell or concerned about possible infection, a well-prepared company policy will mean they feel confident in offering the correct response and are seen to remain calm.

Working from home

Asking staff to work from home is a practical option if you are an office-based employee. This obviously depends on the nature of a business and the possibility for infection spreading. In some industries, such as the care sector, this won’t be possible given the nature of the work being carried.

If home working is an option then this should be considered if a member of staff is being quarantined but is still able to work, or is a vulnerable employee, for example if they are pregnant or at a higher risk of infection. It is important to note that remote working is at the employer’s discretion as legally they do not have to be offered.

Legal responsibilities

Employers have an overarching obligation to take reasonable steps to safeguard their employees while at work, this is an implied responsibility. In addition to this duty are the relevant pieces of health and safety legislation which also afford protection to employees.

Reasonable precautionary steps are expected by an employer when considering the health of their employees. Relevant ACAS guidelines state that there is no statutory right to paid sick leave while staff are quarantined but not actually unwell. An employer may want to consider its obligation to other members of staff and agree to pay quarantined employees to reduce the risk of a virus spreading.

When a business is forced to close

In some industries there will be a ‘lay off’ clause within an employment contract, which is a provision designed to deal with a situation in which an employer cannot provide an employee with work, for example, a factory may be forced to close. These clauses are designed to deal with temporary situations and can support employees while they are ‘laid off’ without pay, however if a contract does not contain this arrangement, and there is no corresponding union agreement, then an employer will still have to pay staff even if a business cannot provide work.

It’s important for employers to draft and modify their policies and have a response plan in place around pandemics in the wake of the coronavirus, so staff understand their health and safety rights, and the spread of highly contagious viruses can be controlled.

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