The Government has now moved its strategy from the “contain” to the “delay” phase. It is adopting emergency measures in the hopes of delaying the outbreak of the virus by ‘a few weeks,’ when the NHS would be in a better position to handle the situation when the weather is warmer and there is more bed capacity in hospitals. Nevertheless, neither employees, nor employers should give in to panic.
It is important that businesses and employees keep up-to-date with any relevant health and safety recommendations, take sensible steps to prevent or minimise unnecessary exposure and ensure regular communication with their workers.
What are the symptoms of Coronavirus?
The Word Health Organisation (WHO) has advised the public to watch out for the following symptoms:
“The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.”
Relevant medical information and FAQs can be found on the following:
- NHS’s website https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/
- WHO’s website https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses
Due to lack of immunity, the Coronavirus has been declared by Boris Johnson to be more dangerous than ordinary flu and it is therefore “going to spread further”.
Communication is key
Employers should ensure any policies are clearly communicated to all workers. It would be prudent to advise staff to take precautions, avoid unnecessary travel and limit exposure with affected individuals. Employees should also be made aware of what to do if they have contracted or suspect that have contracted the virus in line with any official guidance.
It would be helpful to have a person to coordinate with the various teams and to ensure all information is fully up-to-date.
Statutory Sick Pay
The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force recently. Under these regulations, SSP will be available to anyone isolating themselves from other people in order to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus. Any individual isolating themselves from others in accordance with advice on Coronavirus is deemed to be incapable of work.
The anticipated Regulations which provide for SSP to be payable from day 1 and allow employers to reclaim the cost from the government are yet to be published.
The Government also announced that as part of the emergency measures, businesses of less than 250 employees can obtain a refund of SSP in reference to the Coronavirus outbreak for up to 2 weeks per employee. Presumably, this is only a temporary measure to help insulate businesses against the impact of Coronavirus. Statutory sick pay is currently paid at £94.25 per week. The Chancellor estimates that it will cost up to £2 billion and help up to 2 million businesses.
Is any evidence of sickness needed?
No. Employees are to use their own discretion of such evidence is required but generally employees can self-certify for the first 7 days. A temporary alternative to the fitness note for individuals will be a notification issued by NHS 111.
For any individuals who choose to self-isolate without any verbal or written advice by a healthcare professional may be required to come into work by the employer. Should they refuse to do so, this could be a disciplinary matter but employers should be careful to take into considerations any underlying physical and mental conditions.
Working from home
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 covers occupational health and safety in Great Britain. It sets out duties that employers have towards employees and provides that one such duty is to provide a safe workplace. Employers must therefore consider how best to balance protecting employees with continuing business as usual.
Working from home, wherever possible is to be encouraged. Employers can ask people to work from home provided they are well but will have to continue pay as normal.
Businesses could also consider introducing different shift work to minimise the number of people being in an enclosed space at a time, including public transport.
Can an employer prevent a symptomatic individual from entering its office/premises?
Yes, but there should be a contractual right to do so. The employer also has a duty to protect the health and safety of its other employees, therefore in such circumstances legal advice should be sought.
Businesses should be careful not to reveal any information about individuals who have self-isolated or have contracted Coronavirus in consideration of possible data and privacy breaches.
Can employers request employees to disclose recent travel information?
Yes, but only as an enquiry and not a demand. Care needs to be taken to ensure an enquiry is note made in reference to only certain geographical areas. Such a request may amount to harassment or discrimination.
Employees with confirmed Coronavirus?
The current official guidance says employers do not have to close for business or send staff home. They will need to notify NHS 111 and Public Health England (PHE). PHE will do a risk assessment and laboratory testing. It is recommended that businesses commission a deep clean of the premises in the meantime.
In some limited circumstances employers may need to close down for a short time. If such a situation arises, normally employees would need to be paid during this time, unless there is a contractual provision to the contrary.
Child care responsibilities
Employees whose children’s schools have been shut down or who have children sent home to self-isolate can work from home if possible. In such circumstances they should be paid as usual.
For any employees who chose not to work during this period, they could take this as holiday or possibly unpaid emergency leave.
Can an employer prevent a worker from travelling to affected areas?
This is something which is typically outside of the authority of employers unless there is a clear provision in the employment contract. In circumstances where the employer is considering cancelling pre-authorised annual leave involving travel in affected areas (even if giving the appropriate notice, i.e. usually twice the length of the requested annual leave, unless expressed otherwise) it would be strongly advised a legal opinion be sought in advance to avoid any discrimination issues.
Finally, some simple health and safety tips
- Encourage employees not to touch their faces and keep their hands clean by following official recommended procedures.
- Ensure sanitising gels are available at convenience locations
- Be strict about cleaning practices and carry out regular deep cleans of the premises.
- Encourage working from home and any telephone/video conferences wherever possible.
- Consider making a “no handshaking at work” policy.
- Consider if there is any possibility for requiring staff to be at premises at different time to limit the number of people in contact with each other and at public transport.
- Encourage workers to use online/mobile banking instead of going into bank branches.
- Ask staff to use self-service at check-outs when shopping.
- Think about whether you need to supply staff with face masks or gloves.
- Keep your staff updated with the latest official guidance and considering putting up signs to remind people of basic hygiene tips.