GUIDANCE NOTE – CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is gathering pace and fears of it spreading within the UK are increasing. Employers should reflect and consider the policies and procedures they have in place to protect the health and safety of their staff.

They should encourage everyone to follow hygiene rules, such as:

  • Washing hands thoroughly with hot water and soap
  • Using tissues when sneezing or coughing and disposing of them immediately.

If Employees do not want to go to Work
The employer should listen to any concerns their staff may have, discuss how they have come to the decision that they do not want to attend work and if there is a genuine issue and a potential solution to suit all parties (and which protects the health and safety of all employees, for instance, homeworking) it would be wise to consider putting measures into place temporarily.

If it is not possible, or the employer is not minded, to put temporary measures into place and the employee still does not want to come into work, it could be agreed that the individual has time off as holiday or unpaid leave, but this would be at the employer’s discretion.

In a worst-case scenario, if an employee refuses to come into work, and is not showing signs of any illness, and so cannot self-certify as unfit for work, the employer may need to consider disciplinary action.

If Someone Cannot Work because they’re in Self-Isolation or Quarantine
The question as to whether there is a legal right to receive sick pay if someone is not sick but cannot work because they’ve been told to, or chooses to, self-isolate is unclear.

It is likely that Statutory Sick Pay and/or Company Sick Pay will be payable if self-isolation arises because the employee has:

  • been told by a medical expert to self-isolate (and has this confirmed in writing by a GP or 111); or
  • had to go into quarantine.

In the main, it’s good practice for their employer to treat any such absence as sick leave and follow their usual sick pay policy or agree for the time to be taken as holiday. Otherwise there’s a risk the employee will come to work because they want to get paid, which could then spread the virus, if they have it.

The Government recently announced changes to SSP rules allowing an employee who self isolates as a result of being given a written notice, typically issued by a GP or by 111 stating they should self-isolate, then they will be deemed incapable of work, and entitled to statutory sick pay from day 1 of the self-isolation.

If the Employer instructs an employee to Self-Isolate or enter Quarantine
If an employee is not sick but their employer tells them not to come to work, they should get their usual pay. For example, if someone has returned from China or another affected area and their employer asks them not to come in, just in case.

If the Employer needs to close the Workplace
In any situation where a decision is taken to shut down a workplace temporarily, as has been the case for several international business in Canary Wharf, the employer should act now to prepare and put a contingency plan in place.

For example:

  • Ask staff who have work laptops or mobile phones to take them home so they can work from home (if you have company equipment that can be taken home make provision for this to happen, and don’t forget to include the appropriate charger).
  • Arrange paperwork tasks that can be done at home for staff who do not work on computers.
  • Consider whether phone lines can be diverted and make sure staff have a way to communicate with the employer and other people they work with.

If a workplace does close temporarily, unless stipulated in the contract (in terms of lay-off or short-term working clauses), employees will still need to get paid, as normal, for this time. If an employer takes the decision to send employees home, they should ensure they talk with their staff as early as possible and regularly throughout the closure keeping them fully informed and updated about what is happening.

If an employee is diagnosed with Coronavirus
Where an employee has been diagnosed with Coronavirus the workplace’s usual sick leave and pay entitlements apply.

Employees should let their employer know as soon as possible if they’re not able to go to work.

General Steps for Employers
Employers would be advised to:

  • keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace. Regularly share up to date guidance and information which is freely available from multiple sources including on government websites (such as Public Health England – https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/public-health-england);
  • make sure you have up to date contact numbers for all staff and ensure that emergency contact details are correct;
  • make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus, are aware of high risk areas of travel 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 or is advised to self isolate;
  • make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap, and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly;
  • make hand sanitisers and tissues available for staff, and encourage their use;
  • consider whether protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations; and
  • consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential

There are reports that this coronavirus outbreak is resulting in a number of people being discriminated against due to their race or ethnicity. Employers should be vigilant to any unfavourable favourable treatment or comments and should ensure that they do not apply provisions that could be considered as singling someone out.

The advice is constantly being updated by Government and the NHS as the situation develops, it is therefore important to remain vigilant and up to date on the latest changes.

The information provided in all of our blogs reflects only a narrative of some elements to consider on the topic. The blogs do not contain considered legal advice and should not be relied upon as advice. Please see our website terms and conditions for full details of our disclaimer. If you are interested in obtaining advice, please contact one of our lawyers who will be happy and able to advise you on your own particular circumstances.