The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading and the Government are planning for all scenarios in the event of a full-blown pandemic in the UK. We saw last week that some organisations had sent staff home. This is bound to lead to questions from staff about their rights, as well as highlighting the need for contingency planning should there be a case of the virus within your organisation.

Firstly, it’s good practice to brief staff on what coronavirus is and what precautions can be taken to reduce the spread of the virus. Basic hygiene such as regular handwashing and using hand sanitiser can help.

Make sure that you have up to date contact details of all your staff and suppliers as well as key customers, so that in the event of a situation developing you can keep them well informed.

If someone does develop the virus it is essential that your managers are re-briefed on the sickness procedures that you have in place. The normal sick pay rules will apply for someone who has the virus, however it is worth reminding managers that someone who has been told to self-isolate may not be able to obtain a fitness to work note, therefore allowances should be made to ensure that the staff member still gets paid.

Remember also that as an employer you must not single anyone out, for example by treating them differently due to their race or ethnicity.

There’s no legal (‘statutory’) right to pay if someone is not sick but cannot work because they:

  • have been told by a medical expert to self-isolate
  • have had to go into quarantine
  • are abroad in an affected area and are not allowed to travel back to the UK

But it’s good practice for you to treat it as sick leave and follow the usual sick pay policy or agree for the time to be taken as holiday. Otherwise there’s a risk the employee will come to work because they want to get paid. They could then spread the virus, if they have it.

If you have an employee who has returned from an affected area such as Italy and you tell them not to come into work then you should pay them as normal.

If you have a staff member who is dealing with a family member who has the virus then it is wise to offer them some flexibility such as taking dependants leave then holiday.

If staff are worried about coming into work due to the threat of coronavirus then as an employer you should listen to their concerns. Although you have no legal obligation to agree to any flexible working, if it is in the best interests of the business and your staff then you should consider temporary working arrangements. If the employer has considered the concerns of the employee and made reasonable adjustments but the employee still refuses to work then the business could consider disciplinary action against the employee.

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

  • get 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
  • which country they’ve 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 (PHE) health protection team will get in contact with the employer to:

  • discuss the case
  • identify people who have been in contact with the affected person
  • carry out a risk assessment
  • advise on any actions or precautions to take

You can find your Public Health England Protection team at www.gov.uk

If you need to close the workplace

Currently it’s very unlikely that an employer will need to close their workplace.

But you should still plan in case you need to close temporarily. For example, making sure staff have a way to communicate with you and other people they work with.

Where work can be done at home, you could:

  • ask staff 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 staff who do not work on computers

In some situations, some organisations 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 staff as early as possible and throughout the closure.