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Coronavirus FAQs

As the number of UK cases of Coronavirus (officially Covoid-19) increases, we answer some of the frequently asked questions about what employers can and should be doing to keep their workforce safe.

Disclaimer: Please note, the guidance set out in this note takes into account the law and guidance issued at the time of writing. This note does not include any medical advice. Before action is taken in any particular set of circumstances, we recommend that appropriate medical and legal advice is taken.

  1. Where can we get up to date information about the spread of the virus and UK government guidance about isolation?

The government publishes daily updates at 2pm with the latest statistics and advice. This can be accessed by clicking here.

  1. How can we reduce the risk to our workforce?

You should encourage all staff and visitors to be extra-vigilant with washing their hands and using and disposing of tissues. Providing hand sanitiser can also help prevent spread of the virus.

You should also consider restricting any business travel to those areas which are considered to be high risk (click here).

  1. Can we insist that a member of staff who has:

    1. travelled to an ‘at-risk’ area;

    2. come into contact with some-one infected with the virus; or

    3. who we suspect may have the virus 

      should self-quarantine for 14 days? 

In short, yes you can. Furthermore, as an employer you have a duty to protect the health and safety of your workforce and so if you have concerns, you should not hesitate in doing so. If you can make arrangements for staff to work from home, then we suggest that you do so.

If, despite this, any member of staff attempts to return to work, you can send them home until you are satisfied that they are no longer a risk.

If the individual is then tested for the virus and the result is negative, they can be asked to return to work. However, it is advisable to ask for evidence of the test result.

If the test is positive, then they will not be fit to work and should not return until they have been medically assessed as fit to do so.

In all cases, we recommend that a risk assessment is undertaken and your insurers are contacted for advice.

  1. Do we have to pay anyone who is absent because they are self-isolating or are suspected of having the virus and if so, what do we need to pay?

What pay staff will be entitled to is the most frequent questioned being asked by employers (and being discussed by the Government) over recent days. What you will need to pay will depend on why someone is not attending work.

If you exclude an employee or worker from the workplace.

If you require an employee to stay away from the workplace as a precautionary measure, you will effectively be suspending them from duties and so unless their contract of employment states otherwise, you will need to pay them in full for the duration of such medical suspension. If they can work from home then this should help to reduce the financial burden this may cause.

For casual workers (that being members of your workforce who work on an ad hoc basis, with no expectation of work at specific times and/or on specific days), subject to the terms of their contract, it may well be that you can simply not offer any work to them for the relevant period.  However, in such circumstances, it would be sensible to take advice.

If an employee or worker reports as being “off sick” or are instructed by their GP/NHS111 to self-isolate.

If an employee or worker is symptomatic, has reported as being “off sick” or has been specifically instructed by their GP/NHS 111 to self-isolate, then you can treat them as sick in the usual way in which case your usual sick pay policy and sick pay terms will apply. At the very least this is likely to entitle them to receive Statutory Sick Pay*. Medical certificates can be requested in accordance with your usual absence reporting procedures.

If an employee or worker is not symptomatic but elects to self-isolate.

If an employee or worker is not sick but is instead concerned about contracting or unknowingly spreading the virus and so volunteers to self-isolate (and has no medical certificate instructing them to stay away from the workplace), unless they have a contractual right to payment in such circumstances (which will be rare), you do not need to pay them at all. They will not be entitled to their usual pay, statutory sick pay or contractual enhanced sick pay.

*NB: It has today been announced that for coronavirus related cases, the rules on SSP will be amended so that any workers who meet the relevant requirements to receive SSP, will be entitled to be paid this from day one of their absence rather than, as has historically been the case, from day four of their absence.

We recommend that you take advice regarding payment arrangements.  

  1. Do we need to take special measures to protect staff that are most at risk if they are exposed to coronavirus?

All employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their workers. Measures may therefore need to put in place to protect those who are most at risk. This might include making arrangements to allow staff who have an underlying medical condition to work from home. This can be kept under review in light of Government guidance about the level of risk (currently assessed as “moderate”).

Risk assessments should be undertaken in any given case and appropriate measures put in place. Particular attention should be paid to pregnant or breastfeeding mothers.

  1. Do we have to shut our business if an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus?

Not unless you have been advised to.

If an employee becomes infected, your local Public Health England Health Protection Team will contract you and conduct a risk assessment. They will provide advice about any actions or precautions you need to take. This advice may change if the number of UK confirmed cases increases.

As advice is changing daily and a decision to close the workplace may need to made quickly, it would be sensible to start thinking about your contingency plan in the event that the workplace is closed: do you have suitable measures in place to help facilitate home working?

  1. Can we prevent staff travelling abroad on holiday?

No, you can’t prevent someone travelling on holiday to any geographical area.

However, you can advise against travel to certain areas, reiterate government guidance and require employees to inform you if they do intend to travel to affected areas.

Informing them about what will happen if they do travel to an affected area, including whether they will need to self-isolate on their return and whether they will be paid is advised.

  1. What can an employer communicate about an employee with coronavirus?

Under UK data protection law, personal data concerning health is 'special category data'.

This means that employers need to ensure that any communication does not include any data about the individual who is absent.

For example, while it would be fine to let employees know that there has been a confirmed coronavirus case within its workforce, it would not be appropriate to provide any details from which the individual might be identified.

  1. Can we be liable for discrimination and harassment by employees?

There have been reports of an uptake in racism and prejudice being shown towards those of Chinese origin since the outbreak began and so there is an increased risk of such behaviour occurring in the workplace.

It is well known that employers will be liable for harassment or discrimination by their employees towards other employees, save where they have taken reasonable steps to prevent the conduct. Employers will be unable to simply rely on a policy that states that discrimination and harassment is not tolerated. Further steps, such as training and evidence of inappropriate behaviour being tackled, must also be taken for an employer to avoid liability.

UK Government advice is changing daily and is likely to continue to as the number of UK confirmed cases increases. If you have any concerns about protecting your workforce and pay arrangements for staff in isolation, call the employment team on 0113 849 4000 or email employment@schofieldsweeney.co.uk for advice.