COVID-19 Coronavirus: What Employers Need To Know
Updated: May 11
The family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS and MERS, are called ‘coronaviruses’. The current outbreak of coronavirus is a new or ‘novel’ strain and is called COVID-19.
Coronaviruses are Zoonotic; which means they spread between animals and humans. The SARS outbreak in 2003 and the current outbreak are thought to originate from the bat population of China.
Symptoms range from a sore throat to life-threatening pneumonia. Current evidence suggests that the virus is most dangerous to those already vulnerable as a result of existing medical illnesses.
Key Health & Safety considerations for employers
If any of your employees are required to travel to China, be sure to follow the updated government advice. Also, as with any H&S risk assessment, consider whether the trip can be postponed or replaced by online video meetings. Where employees have recently returned from China, or are due to, consider if and how they can work from home until they are sure they’ve not been infected. Remember the virus can spread without symptoms being evident. Ensure good hygiene standards are enforced across the business and provide alcohol-based sanitising hand gels or wipes.
Note that alcohol wipes break down the structure of the virus but not all products are the same. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that ethanol-based products are more effective against viruses. A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of these products against re-emerging viral pathogens (e.g. severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV)). The study determined that these and other similar viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both ethanol-based and isopropanol-based sanitising gels. Care homes and other medical or care sector employers should consult the NHS guidance – see link here.
What are the HR issues?
Employees should continue to follow existing company absence reporting procedures if for any reason they are unable to attend their nominated place of work and undertake their contractual duties. Given the exceptional circumstances, employers may need to be flexible if a company's absence reporting procedure requires written evidence to cover a period of sickness in excess of seven days; employees may not be able to obtain this due to self-isolation.
Sick Pay – Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 contain a declaration by the Secretary of State that the incidence of transmission of novel Coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health, and the measures outlined in these regulations are considered as an effective means of delaying or preventing further transmission of the virus.
Assuming that someone who self isolates does so because they are given a written notice (see here), typically issued by a GP or by 111, they are deemed in accordance with the SSP Regulations to be incapable of work and are therefore entitled to SSP. If the employer offers contractual sick pay, it’s good practice to provide this.
If somebody chooses to self-isolate, and/or is not given that written notice, then they are not entitled to SSP.
Those told not to attend work by their employer (more akin to suspension on health and safety grounds) means subject to specialist advice, full pay should probably be paid.
If a colleague has returned from a specific area listed by the Government that requires 14 days self isolation, regardless of symptoms, they should follow the Government’s advice and in the UK use the 111 online coronavirus service to find out what to do next, or in Ireland call 112. They should not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.
If a colleague has returned from a specific area listed by the Government and they have symptoms of a cough, high temperature or shortness of breath (even if those symptoms are mild), they should follow the Government’s advice and in the UK use the 111 online coronavirus service to find out what to do next, or in Ireland call 112. They should not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.
If the employee has visited one of these areas on your behalf, you bear some responsibility for the position in which they now find themselves. The best option is to explore opportunities to work from home. If this isn’t possible, consider paid sickness absence or even, subject to specialist advice, paid medical suspension.
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