This week four further patients in England have tested positive for Coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases reported in the UK to 13. Further, the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency of international concern and the UK government has subsequently raised the level of risk to the public from low to moderate. So what does this mean for employers?
Employers have a duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. With this in mind, we consider the potential impact of Coronavirus in the workplace and some important points that employers should be aware of.
Self-isolated / quarantined employees
The government has published updated guidance to state that all travellers returning to the UK from one of the following countries within the last 14 days who develop symptoms of a cough, fever or shortness of breath should immediately stay indoors and avoid contact with other people for a period of 14 days.
- Mainland China
- Republic of Korea
- Hong Kong
This could mean that employers see an increase in employees “self-isolating” after travelling to an affected country.
Employers are not legally obliged to pay employees who are not sick but are unable to attend work because they have been instructed by a medical expert to self-isolate or go into quarantine. However in recently published guidance, Acas has advised that it would be “good practice” for employers to deal with this scenario under their usual sick leave policy. An alternative would be for employers to consider providing affected employees with the option of taking the time as annual leave. It is hoped that this would reduce the risk of affected employees feeling obligated to come into work and potentially spreading the virus.
The right to suspend
If an employee is not sick but there is an identified risk that they may have been exposed to Coronavirus then the employer may want to keep that employee away from the workplace until the risk has passed. One way to do this would be to suspend the employee on health and safety grounds.
If an individual is suspended on health and safety grounds, it is unlikely that their absence will be deemed to be sickness absence and subsequently they will not be entitled to receive statutory sick pay. However, according to the recently published Acas guidance, the suspended employee will have the right to continue to receive their usual full pay (assuming that the contract of employment does not say otherwise). The employer will not be obliged to provide the employee with work provided it continues to pay wages.
One alternative to suspending an affected employee would be to ask them to work from home for a prescribed period of time until the risk has passed. Of course this is subject to the employee being well enough to work from home.
Employees who have been diagnosed with Coronavirus should be managed under the employer’s sickness absence policy and the usual sick leave and pay entitlements will apply. In the UK statutory sick pay is payable to qualifying employees for up to 28 weeks in a three year period. Employees may also be eligible to receive contractual sick pay from their employer.
Some employees may be unwilling to attend work if they are concerned about contracting Coronavirus in the workplace. This is particularly important when considering more vulnerable individuals who could be more susceptible to catching the virus. For example pregnant women or those with existing respiratory problems or other health problems.
With regards to pregnant employees, employers are required to carry out a risk assessment to identify any workplace risks to both the mother and her unborn child, and to implement suitable measures to control any risks so far as is reasonably practicable. Where concerns are raised, employers may need to consider offering flexible working arrangements such as homeworking or allowing individuals to take some time off as holiday or unpaid leave. If this is not possible and there are still concerns, the employee may need to be suspended from work on maternity grounds.
Regardless of any vulnerability, employers should ensure that they listen to concerns that all employees may have and provide reassurance. As outlined above, if there are genuine concerns the employer must try to resolve them. However, employers are not obliged to agree to such requests and ultimately refusal to attend at work could lead to disciplinary action.
What to do if Coronavirus spreads more widely in the UK?
In the event that Coronavirus spreads more widely in the UK, Acas has provided the following guidance to help employers protect the health and safety of its workforce.
- Keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace.
- Make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date.
- Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of 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.
- Make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly.
- Give out hand sanitisers and tissues to staff, and encourage them to use them.
- Consider if protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations.
- Consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential.
It is important to note that in the event that an employer implements measures such as asking staff to wear protective face masks, they do not single anyone out, for example based on their race or ethnicity.