With new cases in the UK and globally reported every day, coronavirus has become the most pressing public health and business issue of the day. Although confirmed cases in the UK remain low at the time of writing, the risk of a much wider epidemic appears to be growing (particularly as many individuals with the virus don't display symptoms) and businesses need to ensure that they are prepared. The Government has estimated that up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be absent from work due to illness. Employers need to consider some key issues urgently:
The situation is developing rapidly and advice from the Government and public health authorities will change over time. Businesses should identify who is responsible for monitoring that advice, assessing risks, advising the Board/senior management on the business' response and ensuring that information is communicated effectively to staff.
Health and safety
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment as far as reasonably practicable and to conduct risk assessments generally (and specifically for pregnant workers). The level of risk and appropriate risk-reduction strategies will vary widely from business to business. Many businesses are already taking straightforward steps such as reminding staff of the need to practice good hand hygiene, providing hand sanitisers and wipes, and ensuring that desks and equipment are properly cleaned with appropriate anti-bacterial products. Individuals with compromised immune systems (such as individuals undergoing chemotherapy) are at particular risk from coronavirus: where employers are aware that staff have such conditions, they should consider what measures can be put in place to reduce the risks to staff. The risks of business travel to affected areas need to be considered carefully – a list of high risk areas is here.
Self-isolation and sickness absence
Individuals who have travelled to affected areas are being advised by the Government to stay at home for 14 days following their return even if they are not experiencing symptoms.
The position in relation to payment of contractual or statutory sick pay is not entirely clear. Contractual sick pay entitlements will depend upon the terms of employees' contracts. The Secretary of State for Health has indicated that he has had legal advice that SSP is payable when individuals self-isolate, but the basis of this advice has not been disclosed. If individuals are given a formal notice by Public Health England requiring them to self-isolate, they may be deemed to be unfit for work for SSP purposes and therefore entitled to SSP. As self-isolation is not a suspension imposed by the employer, it may not fall within the medical suspension rules (requiring full pay). However, businesses may want to take a pragmatic approach here: staff who won't be paid are less likely to comply with the advice to self-isolate and therefore may spread the virus to colleagues, customers and the public. Payment of SSP, at least, is likely to be a sensible measure. Where individuals can work from home effectively, employers should seek to accommodate this (and such work would therefore be paid).
Employers may also need to be flexible about sickness absence reporting, as individuals required to self-isolate are advised not to contact their GP (and so will not be able to submit fitness to work certificates in the usual way). Any temporary adjustments to existing sick pay and sickness absence policies to make them more flexible should be clearly communicated to staff, so that they know what is expected of them. The Government has indicated that changes to SSP may be implemented to deal with the epidemic, so employers should keep this under review.
Some schools/childcare settings have already been closed for periods of time in order to reduce infection risks. Clearly this will create difficulties for employees with children, who will need to take time off to provide/arrange childcare. Again, employers should try to take a sympathetic and pragmatic approach, accommodating home-working where possible (although recognising that simultaneously looking after younger children and working is often very difficult).
Business continuity planning
Employers need to consider the potential impact of high levels of absence and transport disruption on their businesses and ensure that they have appropriate business continuity plans in place. Communicating these to staff at an early stage and stress-testing them will increase the chances of these running smoothly if they are needed. Employers may need to check staff contracts to establish whether they are able to insist on staff being contactable or working outside their usual hours, if absence levels make this necessary
This the most critical issue of all. Although it is important to communicate potential and known risks as accurately as possible, businesses should adopt a pragmatic, calm tone in any communications with staff. Designating a single 'point person' for queries may help to prevent rumour and speculation among staff. It is essential to provide staff with clear information in a form that they can access and understand, to avoid spreading unnecessary panic.