Don’t let the coronavirus disrupt your business

With each day that passes, the severity of the coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) increases, as the issues extend beyond health concerns, impacting stock markets around the world and the way businesses operate.

The Government has confirmed that workers will receive statutory sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth, to help contain coronavirus, arguing that people who self-isolate are protecting others and should not be penalised.

Whilst the number of UK cases are relatively low for the time being, organisations with globally connected workforces must monitor the impact of the outbreak and take steps to protect their employees where necessary.

Reducing the risk to employees

Employers must note the advice given by official bodies and ensure their workforce are aware of how to mitigate the risks associated with the disease.

Guidance on issues such as handwashing, disposing of tissues, etc., should be shared via the most effective means dependent on the type of workplace.

It may also be wise to designate an ‘isolation room’ within your workplace, allowing those suspected of having the virus to retire to whilst calling 111, ideally using their own mobile phone.

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

Given the advice around thorough handwashing, employees should be encouraged to take their time, without the threat of punishment for spending extra time in doing so.

Good practice starts with good communication and regular updates for all employees, and this will show the organisation is taking the situation seriously and doing all it can to protect its workers.

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. An employer also needs to demonstrate flexibility on issues such as the fact that an employee who is self-isolating may not be able to get a ‘fit-note’.

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, as in the case of those working in frontline services in the care sector, healthcare, cleaning, hospitality, catering and the emergency services.

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.

In some cases, an employer might prefer an employee not to come into work, if they’ve returned from a high-risk area for example and in these circumstances the employee should receive their usual pay.

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

Employers must ensure their staff, customers and 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 headshotAbout the author

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. She acts for employers of all sizes from small businesses to large national and international businesses, advising in connection with all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

Wright Hassall is a top-ranked firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, debt recovery, employee incentives, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.

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