With news of the Coronavirus taking hold in the UK it is now important that UK businesses ensure they are taking reasonable steps to safeguard their employees whilst at work. The World Health Organisation have now declared this a public health emergency of international concern, so what are your obligations and what measures can you reasonably enforce to ensure the safety of your staff without negatively impacting your business?

What is Coronavirus?

There are a group of viruses known as Coronaviruses and these are common across the world. First identified in the mid 1960’s there are four main groups of coronavirus known as Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta which typically cause symptoms similar to the common cold.

Occasionally coronaviruses that affect animals can evolve to affect humans. These viruses are much more dangerous and can be potentially fatal causing severe respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. Examples include the 2012 MERS outbreak and the 2002 SARS outbreak.

Coronavirus is spread through close direct contact with a person infected by the virus through respiratory droplets produced in coughs and sneezes. These droplets can travel up to six feet at a speed of 15ft per second. Infection is spread by these droplets either having direct contact with a person or through contact with a surface or object subjected to the virus.

It is thought that coronavirus can live on surfaces for up to 9 days, and whilst infected persons are most contagious at the peak of symptoms, they are in fact contagious before they even start showing symptoms, and this is why the virus is so highly contagious and difficult to contain.

Current advice from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to help prevent spread is to

  • Self-isolate if sick
  • Clean and disinfect regularly
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Wash hands regularly
  • Only wear a facemask if you are sick to help prevent spread

There is currently no cure for Coronavirus, and anyone who believes they have contracted the disease should contact their healthcare provider.

Coronavirus in the workplace

If an employee comes to work with Coronavirus, you do not necessarily have to send them home or close the office, but it is important that they are isolated from other members of the team to prevent the risk of spread. The Employee should be required to contact NHS 111 to discuss their symptoms. As an Employer, you should then contact your local Public Health England ealth protection team who can discuss the case with you and advise on any necessary precautions. Details of this can be found on the website.

Employers are under a duty of care to ensure the Health and Safety of all their employees and to provide a safe place of work. Equally employees are under a duty of care to ensure they do not endanger themselves or others who may be affected by their actions at work.

Therefore, it is recommended that businesses take the following actions during the outbreak:

Working from home / Flexible working

Where possible work with any employees affected directly or indirectly by the virus to see if homeworking or flexible working can be offered as a viable option during incubation periods to help prevent further spread of the virus.

Travel / Meetings

Consider the importance of any scheduled travel or conferences for employees and try to reschedule or offer alternative remote options such as conference calling or video conferences.

Sickness Absence Policy review

It is important that you review your Sickness Absence Policy and ensure staff are aware of their rights to sick pay and time off.

Annual Leave

If any employees have booked holiday to a high risk country, and are worried about their travel plans or wish to cancel these it is important you discuss with them their options in terms of claiming the holiday days back.

Take precautions

Ensure you provide a clean place for employees to wash their hands and consider providing hand sanitisers and tissues and encourage their use.

Paid leave for time off

Employees that take time off sick will be entitled to the company’s usual sick leave and pay entitlement. Employees will be required to notify their employer following the company’s absence reporting procedure, however, due to self-isolation periods Employers will need to be lenient when requesting evidence.

If an Employee is not sick and the Employer requests that they do not attend work or temporarily closes the business, then the Employee is entitled to full pay.

If an Employee requires time off to care for a dependant then they are legally allowed to do so in an unexpected event such as the Coronavirus for a ‘reasonable amount of time’ however, there is no statutory right to pay for this time.

If an Employee feels they do not wish to attend work due to fear of catching the Coronavirus, the Employer has a duty to listen to the concerns, and if genuine must take steps to try and resolve these. If the Employee still does not wish to attend then it may be worth considering arranging for the Employee to take holiday or unpaid leave. If an Employee still refuses to work then they will be subject to disciplinary action from the Employer.

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