Professional Comment

Working Through The Coronavirus Outbreak

Tina Chander is a partner and head of the Employment team at leading Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues.

The coronavirus outbreak (officially Covid-19) has raised serious health concerns, with many countries imposing travel restrictions and nationwide quarantines to help slow the spread of the virus.

In the UK, the Government has confirmed that statutory sick pay will apply from the first day off work, not the fourth, arguing that workers who are self-isolating should not be penalised for doing so. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has also encouraged people to work from home where possible, as another effective social distancing measure.

For this reason, employers should be taking steps to protect their workforce, ensuring the official advice and guidance is made available during a period of uncertainty.

Reducing the risk to employees

From a business perspective, team meetings and informative emails are an effective way to keep workers updated as the situation develops.

If working from home is not a viable option, then it may be wise to designate an ‘isolation room’ where sick employees can retire to before calling NHS 111 for further medical advice.

Other steps to take include:

  • Update the contact numbers and emergency contact details of employees
  • Ensure that managers are aware of the symptoms of the virus
  • Disseminate information across management on issues such as sick leave and sick pay
  • Ensure that facilities for regular and thorough washing of hands are in place
  • Dispense hand sanitisers and tissues to employees
  • Weigh up the pros and cons of supplying protective face masks to employees who may be working in particularly high-risk scenarios

Given the advice around hand-washing in particular and the length of time suggested to do it properly (two happy birthdays), organisations should advise all their employees to wash their hands thoroughly and let them know they will not be penalised for the extra time taken.

What to do if an employee becomes unwell

If you suspect an employee may have the virus, then they should be removed from the proximity of other colleagues and placed in the ‘isolation room’, ensuring they follow all the necessary precautions.

The employee when calling NHS 111 should be advised to give the operator the following details:

  • Their symptoms
  • The name of any country they’ve returned from in the past fortnight

Uncertainty over the seriousness of the virus, the exact nature of the symptoms and concern about the situation regarding issues such as sick pay may lead to some employees coming to work despite having contracted the virus.

If this does happen, then an employer should contact the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team and they will discuss and outline any precautions which should be taken.


The Position on Sick Pay

If an employee is off sick with the virus then the legal situation regarding sick pay is the same as it is with any other illness however the employee is now entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day of work, not the fourth. The complicating factor surrounding this virus, however, is the government advice for people returning from high risk areas is self-isolation for 14 days.

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate then they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them or contractual sick pay if this is offered by the employer. An employer also needs to demonstrate flexibility on issues such as the fact that an employee who is self-isolating may not be able to get a ‘fit-note’.

In some cases, employees may be able to work from home while in self-isolation. However, in many cases, if an employee cannot attend their place of work, they will be unable to work.

Currently, there is no bespoke advice for specific industries, but as the impact of Coronavirus spreads, we may see more advice and contingency plans develop to ensure essential and core services continue to operate.

In some cases, an employer might prefer an employee not to come into work, if they’ve returned from a high-risk area for example and in these circumstances the employee should receive their usual pay.

Therefore, you should offer flexible solutions such as working from home if possible. Alternatively, although there is no legal obligation to do so, you could offer the time away from work as a holiday or unpaid leave.

Ultimately, there is no obligation on an employer to allow an employee to stay away from work and, if the non-attendance causes issues or extends beyond an emergency precaution, then an employer is entitled to take disciplinary action.

No time to be divisive

Employers must also take steps to ensure that no members of staff, customers or suppliers are treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

It may be appropriate to remind staff that jokes and banter, even if light-hearted, may easily slip over the line to become unlawful harassment and/or discrimination, for which an employer may be liable.

Employers can avoid liability if they can show they took ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent employees behaving in such a manner.

Taking reasonable steps can include having well publicised diversity and harassment policies and training all staff on the issue. Managers must also be trained about their responsibility to identify and prevent discriminatory behaviour.

Care Operator Healthcare Management Solutions Offers Support to Over Stretched NHS

Healthcare Management Solutions (HCMS) is inviting hospitals and local authorities to make use of the spare capacity that exists in some of its homes in order to protect elderly people and to free up much needed capacity in NHS hospitals.

Chief executive, Tony Stein said, “In these unprecedented times, it is incumbent upon everyone to do whatever can be done to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

“It seems likely that hospital capacity will be sorely challenged over the coming months and it is essential that the maximum number of acute care beds is available for the treatment of those most in need.

“Whilst we have spare beds then we will be happy to offer these to public health authorities, hospitals and local authorities to free up much needed capacity, and to provide a safe and comfortable place for those forced to self-isolate or who may be struggling to remain independent at home.