Coronavirus advice for UK employers

The following is a summary of guidance recently issued by the CIPD regarding the coronavirus disease, officially known as COVID-19, which was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization in January 2020 and has the potential to pose a threat to some organisations. Here is an overview of the virus and how employers should respond to the threat and support their employees.

About COVID-19
COVID-19 is from the family of coronaviruses (CoV) which causes illness ranging from the common cold to more serious diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (CoV). Coronaviruses can be transmitted between animals and people. Similar viruses are spread by cough droplets. COVID-19, which was not previously seen in humans, was first identified in Wuhan City, in Hubei province, China.

Common signs of infection included respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection causes pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. More severe cases are likely to occur when people have weakened immune systems, are older, or have long-term conditions such as cancer, chronic lung disease or diabetes.

On 30 January 2020, the risk to the UK public was raised from low to moderate by the UK Chief Medical Officers, but the risk to individuals remains low.

The main concern for UK employers is dealing with travel to and from China and elsewhere in the region. You can keep up to date with the latest foreign travel advice on the government website.

Actions employers should take
While the virus continues to spread it has the potential to pose a significant threat to some organisations. The level of risk a company faces may depend on whether it employs people who have travelled back or been in contact with anyone who has returned from an area affected by the virus.

Should the virus be declared a pandemic, then it could lead to wider disruptions affecting suppliers, customers, fuel, basic commodities and disruptions to public transport.

Be prepared

  • Regularly check in to the government and public health advice websites for updates and refer employees who are concerned about infection.
  • Develop a contingency plan. Assess your own level of exposure to business disruption caused by the virus. Communicate your plan to key teams and individuals across your organisation.
  • Establish a contingency team to take responsibility for operating the contingency plan and allocate responsibilities for its implementation in the event of a pandemic.
  • If a pandemic occurs, the contingency teams should meet regularly to review preparations and ensure they are fit for purpose.

Staff health, wellbeing and safety
Employers have a statutory duty of care for staff health and safety, and to provide a safe place to work. However, they also have a responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment.

Clearly communicate the need for employees to take precautions, avoid travel to affected areas or contact with infected or potentially infected people or animals. Advise them about necessary measures if they think they may have caught the virus.

Immediate advice for employees returning from travel
The NHS advises:

  • Any employee who has returned from Wuhan and Hubei province in the last 14 days should self-isolate and advise the emergency services via NHS 111 even if they do not have symptoms of the virus.
  • Any employee who has returned from other areas of China, Macao, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia in the last 14 days and develops a cough, fever or shortness of breath, should self-isolate and advise NHS 111.

Wider wellbeing

  • Keep up to date with official medical advice and actively communicate advice with employees, customers and suppliers.
  • Implement an internal communications strategy that addresses employee concerns and reassures them that there is no need to panic as the risk to the UK population remains low. Keep line managers informed about contingency plans and where to signpost people for support and advice.
  • Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and wellbeing generally, including those through an employee assistance programme.
  • If the virus spreads or becomes a pandemic, be prepared to step up the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Consider staff members who may be more vulnerable (pre-existing health conditions, pregnancy or age).
  • If employees need to self-quarantine or are sent home as a precaution this should be done on full pay. Some employment contracts contain a right to suspend employees briefly without pay. However, this right usually only applies in limited circumstances and a suspected illness is unlikely to be covered. Unless there is a clear contractual right to suspend employees without pay or benefits, then employers who insist on this could potentially face claims for breach of contract, unlawful deduction of wages and constructive unfair dismissal.

Develop flexible resourcing plans

  • In the event of staff shortages, have strategies to cover home working to prevent the spread of infection.
  • Investigate how to use technology to limit the amount of face-to-face contact, for example, videoconferencing.
  • Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees to work longer hours – if they are willing – to keep your business going. Check any such arrangements comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998.
  • If necessary, have plans in place for your organisation to operate temporarily on skeleton staff. Prioritise key services that are essential and identify which services may be temporarily stood down until normal service resumes. Identify staff with transferable skills who can fulfil more than one function or be allocated to more essential roles.
  • Conduct a resourcing risk assessment. Ensure employees have the required skills or train employees to cover roles if needed. Equip employees with adequate handover procedures if they are covering unfamiliar roles, and provide training and additional risk assessments if the temporary roles present health and safety risks.
  • If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements and communicate the business reasons to employees.