What will the spread of coronavirus mean for businesses?

The serious health concerns brought about by the coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) have been well documented, as nations impose travel restrictions and enter quarantine to tackle the spread.

The UK Government recently confirmed that sick employees will receive statutory sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth, to encourage those experiencing symptoms to self-isolate, without fear of being penalised for doing so.

Whilst the number of UK cases are relatively low compared to other parts of the world, it’s crucial that employers take steps to protect their employees, especially if they have a globally connected workforce.

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Reducing the risk to employees

Firstly, employers should take the official advice given and share it with workers appropriately, using emails or team meetings to get the information across.

It may also be wise to designate an ‘isolation room’, where sick employees can retire to before calling NHS 111 for further medical advice.

Other steps to take include:

  • Ensure that the contact numbers and emergency contact details of all members of staff are up to date
  • Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus and how to spot them
  • Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and sick pay and the procedures to follow if an employee develops symptoms of the virus
  • Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are in place, including hot water and soap
  • Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees
  • Weigh up the pros and cons of supplying protective face masks to employees who may be working in particularly high-risk scenarios

What to do if an employee becomes unwell

If an employee exhibits the symptoms of the virus, they should be removed from the proximity of other employees, placed in the designated ‘isolation room’ and encouraged to follow precautions.

The employee when calling NHS 111 should be advised to give the operator the following details:

  • Their symptoms
  • The name of any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight

Uncertainty over the seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus.

If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team and they will discuss the details and outline any precautions which should be taken.

The Position on Sick Pay

If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness however the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth.

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay if this is offered by the employer.

In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.

Currently, there is no bespoke advice for specific industries, but as the impact of Coronavirus spreads, we may see more advice and contingency plans develop to ensure essential and core services continue to operate.

Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.

As things stand at present it is still unlikely that any workplaces will have to close as a result of the virus, but it’s a potential risk and organisations should have contingency plans in place.

No time to be divisive

While much of the focus is on the health risks associated with coronavirus, it’s crucial that employers ensure staff, customers or suppliers are not discriminated against based on their race or ethnicity.

Even jokes and banter can sometimes cross the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

This liability can be avoided if an employer proves they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent employees behaving in such a manner.

Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Meanwhile, managers must be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour. 

Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues

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