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Coronavirus - Advice for employers in the UK

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This blog was originally published on 28 February 2020. As the situation keeps evolving, we have updated our advice.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus in the UK is currently low, it is likely to rise and as the outbreak has now been declared a pandemic it is important for businesses to take what steps they can to mitigate the impact. This could include reviewing health and safety policies and procedures and business continuity planning.

The government and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), have issued advice on handling coronavirus in the workplace.

Firstly, companies should monitor events in each of their relevant locations and those of their key suppliers where interruption in their output would affect business. It is recommended to undertake a business continuity risk assessment and implement a plan in response.

Companies may choose to involve a trade union or another employee representative body to assist in the planning process.

Handling coronavirus in the workplace

Employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their employees. There is also an obligation on employees to take reasonable care for their own safety and others they work with.

Firstly, businesses must ensure that there is good hygiene in the workplace and review practices, where necessary.

If someone has coronavirus, the workplace's usual sick leave and pay entitlements apply and employees should let their employer know as soon as possible if they're not able to attend work.

There is no statutory right to pay if someone is not sick but cannot attend work because they are in an affected area abroad and unable to travel back to the UK, however the government has just announced that statutory sick pay will apply to individuals who have been medically advised to self-isolate or go into quarantine. This will also be payable from day 1 rather than day 4 for affected individuals. It is hoped these new measures will help to avoid any sick employee returning to work simply to get paid and potentially risk spreading the virus.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has said guidance has been sent to UK employers and that self-isolation should be considered "sickness for employment purposes".

Importantly, the government has announced that it will reimburse small employers (with fewer than 250 employees) for statutory sick pay payments made to employees suffering from or self-isolating due to coronavirus for the first 14 days of absence. 

Alternatively, if the employee decides to come to work but the employer refuses to allow them, then the employee should be paid their usual pay and benefits. If there is a risk that an employee may have been exposed to coronavirus then it is understandable, in light of an employer's duty to protect the health and safety of other employees, that the employer could wish to keep that employee away from the workplace. This is assuming that there are reasonable and non-discriminatory grounds for concern. If possible, the employer could explore the option of remote working (if the employee is well enough to do so).

Companies may need to consider suspending some of their normal practices around return to work, sick pay, or dependant leave, as the situation develops. For example, while a company sickness policy may require medical evidence from the employee, a person suffering from the virus might not be able to get a sick note if they are in self-isolation, though the government has now announced that individuals will shortly be able to get a sick note through the NHS 111 service if they are medically advised to self-isolate.

Interestingly, the Tokyo offices of the Wall Street banks are planning to split staff into groups and keep them physically segregated for weeks in an attempt to avoid a full workforce being affected. This includes some employees working from home, some from the main office, and some from other designated locations. Although it may seem drastic to implement in the UK currently, this is something to think about, now that a pandemic has been declared.

It is important for employees to remain informed about potential health risks.

Actions could include:

If an employee is due to go on holiday to a high-risk destination, an employer should direct them to government advice. An employee should realise the implications of travelling if there is a real risk of contracting the virus or self-isolation upon return.  

Contractual obligations

As a result of a pandemic, companies may either be unable to fulfil their contractual obligations or suffer loss due to suppliers being unable to fulfil theirs. Usually, a claim for damages for breach of contract would be a possible remedy.

Companies need to review their contracts as part of the business continuity planning as if the contractual failure was principally caused by an outbreak of a virus or other crisis, a claim for breach may not be viable due to the doctrine of frustration or an applicable force majeure clause.

Therefore, if companies think there is a risk of an outbreak of coronavirus that could cause a breach, they should consider what pre-emptive measures they could take. Examples include providing early delivery to customers (where possible) and stockpiling key materials.

It is important to note that the risk of catching coronavirus remains low, but as the virus develops, the government’s advice is constantly changing.

Although unlikely, if there is a temporary reduction in work as a result of coronavirus, meaning lay-offs and short time working are necessary, employers should ensure their contracts expressly facilitate this. As China have taken this approach, it is something to think about for UK employers, now that a pandemic has been declared.

If you have any queries about this blog, please contact our Employment Team.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.