There are now concerns of a worldwide pandemic. There are fears that the UK may need to quarantine much of the population. If this is the case then employers need to take steps to protect and reassure employees.
What is the law?
There are three areas of law that need to be taken into consideration:
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974;
- European Council Directive 89/391/EEC; and
- The Common Law.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, all employees must ensure that they do not endanger themselves or anyone else by their actions at work. Failure for a staff member to protect others could result in disciplinary action.
However, these are not the only legal aspects that need to be taken into account. Further, it is important not to fall foul of Data Protection laws as it is likely that the company need to disclose medical information.
Keep on top of developments
The situation is ever-changing and therefore likely that guidance will change too. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has provided detailed advice regarding isolation.
If you have a staff member that had been diagnosed with COVID-19 then you must take care with any announcements as you do not want to breach data protection laws.
All employers have obligations to keep their employees safe and informed about health risks. Employers should be carrying out risk assessments of their facilities so not to put their staff under undue risk of infections.
A risk assessment should include high risk factors such as whether a role requires high degree of international travel. If the countries that the individual is travelling to have large infection rates or that government guidance is not to travel to those areas then you may want to assess whether travel is appropriate. Ensuring your internal policies are updated may help protect your employees.
Having an appropriate disaster recovery/business continuity policy in place is essential. We are unaware of how severe the Corona virus outbreak will be. If the UK start to quarantine areas of the country like Italy have, then businesses may need to adapt their policies.
Remote working might be a solution, with staff able to work from home to contain the spread. If that is the solution then it is important that your staff know how they can work from home. The government advise to work from home if possible.
Further, are there indispensable members of staff? Training others to cover business critical positions may mitigate the risk of those staff members becoming ill.
The current advice at time of writing this article is that should a staff member contract the virus then not to close workplace. Public Health England should contact the company and recommend next steps. However, this advice may change depending on numbers of cases. If you decide to shut the office down for a prolonged period of time, then employees will need to be paid unless expressly stated otherwise in the employment contract.
It is best to know what your employment contracts state and know the rights of your workforce. You may have the right to temporarily “lay-off” staff and pay redundancy payments as an alternative.
Another best practice area would be ensuring that all staff have up to date emergency contact details.
It is advisable to model various scenarios to assess how your business would cope.
Dealing with absence
It is likely that there will be a rise in employee absences due to people fearing they have the virus and also fear of contracting it. ACAS advises that employers should listen to staff about their concerns and offer flexible working as much as they can. Clearly, staff have contractual rights and you are required to pay them should they be quarantined and have a medical note. There would need to be a clear contractual right not to pay them.
If you have staff that have had to take time off work due to their child’s school being shut then they may be entitled to reasonable unpaid time off and right to care for dependants.
If an employee is quarantined then it is unlikely that your sick policy covers this, however guidance from ACAS is that they should be paid sick leave. You may wish to look at policies on how you are to deal with this facet.
Under UK law, should someone be dismissed for refusing to go to work because they believe they are in serious or imminent danger then this is automatically unfair dismissal.
Review all current policies and employment contracts.
Communicate changes and policies regarding the corona virus to the employees. Designate a suitable member of staff to communicate office policy. One area would be circulating good hygiene techniques.
Keep up-to-date with government advice and communicate what changes are implemented quickly and efficiently.