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Coronavirus – Updated Guidance for Employers (17 March 2020)

Information about the Virus

A coronavirus is a type of virus. As a group, coronaviruses are common across the world. Typical symptoms of coronavirus include fever and a cough that may progress to a severe pneumonia causing shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

Generally, coronavirus can cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease. Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a new strain of coronavirus first identified in Wuhan City, China.

The NHS website has more information about how coronavirus is spread and answers common questions asked.

Simple steps for employers

In case Coronavirus spreads more widely in the UK, employers should consider some simple steps and good practice to help protect the health and safety of staff:

  • Keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace.
  • Ensure all employees’ contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date.
  • Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of Coronavirus and are clear on any relevant procedures eg. Sickness reporting and sick pay procedures in case someone in the workplace develops the virus.
  • Make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly including on entering the workplace.
  • Give out hand sanitisers and tissues to employees and any contractors and encourage them to use them. 
  • Ensure workspaces are kept clean and consider increasing the cleaning of hard surfaces, particularly phones and door handles.
  • Consider if protective face masks might help for people working in particularly vulnerable situations e.g. with the elderly.
  • Consider if any travel planned to affected areas is essential (consult here for latest travel advice updates https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice ).
  • Consider if travel within the UK is necessary and the alternatives that could be used.
  • Consider whether employees can work home – the latest government advice is that everyone should work at home if they can and that those in the high-risk categories are strongly advised to work at home. 
  • Consider any additional requirements caused by large numbers of staff working from home.
  • Consider cancelling non-essential training events and social gatherings.

Duty to protect the health and safety of employees

During a pandemic or crisis, the employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of employees continues. 

If someone becomes unwell at work

If someone becomes unwell in the workplace and has recently come back from an area affected by coronavirus, they should:

  • Stay at least 2 metres (7 feet) away from other people
  • Go to a room or area behind a closed door, such as a sick bay or staff office
  • Avoid touching anything
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow
  • Use a separate bathroom from others, if possible

The unwell person should use their own mobile phone to call either:

  • For NHS advice: 111
  • For an ambulance, if they’re seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk: 999
  • They should tell the operator their symptoms and which country they have returned from in the last 14 days

If someone with Coronavirus comes to work

The workplace does not necessarily have to close.  The local Public Health England health protection team will get in contact with the employer to:

If the employer needs to close the workplace

Employers should plan in case they need to close temporarily. For example, making sure employees have a way to communicate with the employer and other people they work with.

Where work can be done at home, the employer could:

  • Ask employees who have work laptops or mobile phones to take them home so they can carry on working
  • Arrange paperwork tasks that can be done at home for employees who do not work on computers

In some situations, an employer might need to close down their business for a short time. Unless it says in the contract or is agreed otherwise, they still need to pay their employees for this time. If the employer thinks they’ll need to do this, it’s important to talk with employees as early as possible and throughout the closure.

Sickness policy key notes

  • The workplace’s usual sick leave and pay entitlements apply if someone has Coronavirus.
  • Employees should let their employer know as soon as possible if they’re not able to go to work.
  • The employer might need to make allowances if their workplace sickness policy requires evidence from the employee. For example, the employee might not be able to get a sick note (‘fit note’) if told to self-isolate for 14 days (Find out more about self-isolating on GOV.UK).

Enhanced sick pay

Often an employee’s entitlement to enhanced sick pay is set out in their contract of employment although the details of the entitlement may be set out in a separate policy. 

If the employee has a contractual right to enhanced sick pay changing the terms of the contract usually requires the consent of the employee.  Seeking to impose changes without agreement is a breach of contract and is likely to lead to claims for unfair and wrongful dismissal.

If the contract of employment specifies that the sick pay entitlement is set out is a separate policy which may be amended from time to time it is much easier to make a change.  The employer should confirm the change in writing to the employees and, preferably, obtain written acknowledgment of receipt.

Contact us for advice.

Unable to work due to being in self-isolation

Employees who have been told to self-isolate because:

  • They have coronavirus
  • They have coronavirus symptoms, for example a high temperature or a new continuous cough
  • Someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms
  • They’ve been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111

must be paid statutory sick pay (SSP) due to them. 

On 13 March 2020 the government announced that SSP was payable from the first day of absence and that small employers (less than 250 employees) will be reimbursed for any SSP paid to employees in respect of the first 14 days of sickness related to Coronavirus. 

Otherwise, it’s good practice for employers to follow their usual sick pay policy.

The employee must tell their employer as soon as possible if they cannot work. It’s helpful to let the employer know the reason and how long they are likely to be off for.

If an employee is not sick but their employer tells them not to come to work, they should get their usual pay. For example, if someone has returned from China or another affected area and their employer asks them not to come in.

If an employee needs time off work to look after someone

Employees are entitled to time off work to help someone who depends on them (a ‘dependant’) in an unexpected event or emergency. This would apply to situations to do with Coronavirus.  For example:

  • If they have children, they need to look after or arrange childcare due to school closure
  • To help their child or another dependant if they’re sick, or need to go into isolation or hospital

There’s no statutory right to pay for this time off, but some employers might offer pay depending on the contract or workplace policy.

The amount of time off an employee takes to look after someone must be reasonable for the situation. For example, they might take 2 days off to start with, and if more time is needed, they can book holiday.

If employees do not want to go to work

Some people might feel they do not want to go to work if they’re afraid of catching Coronavirus.

Our advice would be to;

  • Listen to any concern’s employees may have.  If there are genuine concerns, the employer must try to resolve them to protect the health and safety of their staff.  For example, if possible, the employer could offer flexible working.
  • Allow employees who still do not want to attend work, where possible to arrange to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave, however, the employer does not have to agree to this.
  • If an employee refuses to attend work and is not required to self-isolate, they are not entitled to be paid, including SSP, and it ultimately could result in disciplinary action.
  • If the employee is high risk of serious illness because of a protected characteristic, such as disability or age, disability or age discrimination issues may arise, take advice.

If the latest restrictions have caused a downturn in work and the employer is concerned about the need for the work the employee carries out.

Contact us for advice.  We are waiting for government guidance at present.   Many clients are concerned that the situation means that they will be unable to retain their staff.  You may be able to:

  • Require staff to take their holiday entitlement.
  • Temporarily lay off staff and/or introduce short time working depending on the terms of their contract.
  • Agree temporary variations to your staff’s contracts of employment.

For the latest news and more detailed information on the virus visit;

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public

Please contact SCE Solicitors, on 0113 350 4030 for any further guidance you may require regarding the Coronavirus and your employee policies and practices

Samira Cakali

Samira Cakali is a pragmatic and approachable solicitor advocate with extensive contentious and non-contentious experience in the fields of employment law as well as civil litigation, within a range of commercial businesses from SME’s to multinationals as well as senior executives.

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