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4th March 2020 – Covid-19 – Employers Update

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation escalates SYLO Associates decided a business and employee focused update would be useful. This update includes useful links to the ACAS, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and CIPD detailed information.

For the latest updates click here

Useful contacts

UK Government – Coronavirus: latest information and advice 

UK Government – Foreign travel advice

National Health Service – Coronavirus (COVID-19)

World Health Organization advice – Novel coronavirus

We recommend you refer to the latest Gov UK or Foreign travel advice regarding which countries are affected as the situation is changing frequently.

If you would like further support in handling your response to employees or planning for Coronavirus please email us.

In Brief:

ACAS confirms there is no legal (‘statutory’) right to pay employees who are 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.

However, it’s good practice for employers to treat their absence 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.

There is advice re other scenarios in this link: ACAS Coronavirus

SYLO Associates legal advisors also recommend paying employees who are self-isolating or in quarantine and have given the following advice:

Working from home and sickness absence

If an employee has to stay home because they may have been exposed to the virus, they should work from home wherever possible.  If that is not possible then it is still illness-related and therefore can be dealt with under the company’s own sickness policies.  This sickness leave should not be treated as unreasonable absence for instance in absence management procedures/triggers.

Employees who require time off to look after dependants due to school closures etc.

Caring for a child or relative would fall under the usual family emergency regulations i.e. Time off for dependants, and therefore be unpaid leave unless the company’s policy is enhanced to offer a period of paid leave.

Gov UK Advice (ACAS is also aligned with this advice)

Certified Sickness

Gov UK guidance includes the following advice re certifying sickness.  Employers usually require a fit note after 7 days absence, the advice in this circumstance is to use discretion.  This is due to the practical issue of potentially affected individuals being advised not to go to their GP due to the risk of spreading the virus.

Certifying absence from work

By law, medical evidence is not required for the first 7 days of sickness. After 7 days, it is for the employer to determine what evidence they require, if any, from the employee. This does not need to be fit note (Med 3 form) issued by a GP or other doctor.

Your employee will be advised to isolate themselves and not to work in contact with other people by NHS 111 or PHE if they are a carrier of, or have been in contact with, an infectious or contagious disease, such as COVID-19.

We strongly suggest that employers use their discretion around the need for medical evidence for a period of absence where an employee is advised to self-isolate due to suspected COVID-19, in accordance with the public health advice being issued by the government.

The Gov UK site has the following detailed advice for employers regarding what to do in a range of circumstances and how to reduce the spread of infection: COVID-19

Advice from the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) regarding contingency planning, employee health & well-being, resourcing and communication.

How employers should respond to the threat of coronavirus

As the virus continues to spread, it could pose a significant threat to some organisations. We live in a global economy and many employers have operations or supply chains based overseas. The level of risk an organisation may face will depend on whether it is directly or indirectly affected in this way. An organisation may also be affected if it employs people who have travelled back, or been in contact with, anyone who has returned from an area affected by the virus.

If the virus becomes a pandemic it could lead to wider disruptions with suppliers and customers and to shortages of fuel and other basic commodities. There may also be disruptions to public transport.

Be prepared

  • Keep up to date with Government and public health advice: Employers should keep up to date with the situation as it develops and refer employees who are concerned about infection to official and expert medical sources such as GOV.UK and the National Health Service.
  • Develop a contingency plan: Every organisation will need to assess its own level of exposure to business disruption caused by the virus. If it has a site, conducts business or has supply chains in China or an affected region, there will be a direct impact to the company’s day-to-day operations. The plan will need to take account of current and potential impacts and manage the specific business risks associated with the disruption, including service delivery and workforce issues. Communicate the plan to key teams and individuals across the business.
  • If a pandemic does occur: Those responsible for the contingency plan should meet regularly to review the preparations and ensure they are still fit for purpose. It’s important to act early, even if planned contingencies are not then needed.

Look after people’s health, well-being and safety

Employees’ health, safety and well-being during a global health emergency like the coronavirus outbreak should be paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety and to provide a safe place to work, but there’s also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment.

Communicate clearly to employees that they need to take precautions, avoiding travel to affected areas and/or meeting infected or potentially infected people or animals. Advise them on what to do if they think they may have caught the virus.

Immediate advice for employees returning from travel

The NHS advises:

  • Any employee who has returned from Wuhan and Hubei province in the last 14 days and Iran, several towns in Northern Italy and certain areas in South Korea since 19 February should stay indoors, avoid contact with other people and advise the emergency services (via NHS 111) of their recent travel, even if they do not have symptoms of this virus. This list is changing daily – stay up to date with the latest advice.
  • Any employee who has returned from other areas of China, or Macao, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, northern Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in the last 14 days and develops a cough, fever or shortness of breath, however mild should stay indoors, avoid contact with other people and advise the emergency services (via NHS 111) of their travel.

Wider health and well-being concerns

  • Keep up to date and follow official medical advice as it’s updated. Keep employees informed, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have returned from Wuhan or Hubei province, other parts of China and other affected areas, or have been in contact with an infected person, or with an individual who has returned from affected areas. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers.
  • Implement an internal communication strategy so that employees are aware of measures that are being taken to manage the situation in your organisation. Understand that some people may have real concerns about catching the virus, while others may have worries about family or friends stranded in an affected area or returning from China or another affected area. Try to reassure employees that there is no need to panic and the risk to the UK population remains low. Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees, and where to signpost people to for further advice or support.
  • Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and well-being generally, including those through an employee assistance programme.
  • If the virus spreads and/or becomes a pandemic and the risk of infection is heightened, be prepared to step up the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Keep in mind anyone who may be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing health conditions, age, or pregnancy.
  • If employees need to self-quarantine or are sent home as a precaution, this should be done on full pay.  Some employment contracts contain a right to suspend employees briefly without pay. However, this right usually only applies in limited circumstances and a suspected illness is unlikely to be covered. Unless there is a clear contractual right to suspend employees without pay or benefits, then employers who insist on this could potentially face claims for breach of contract, unlawful deduction of wages and constructive unfair dismissal.

Develop flexible resourcing plans

  • As part of your organisation’s contingency plan, explore more flexible resourcing strategies in case your business suffers staffing shortages.
  • Develop strategies to maximise the amount of home working to prevent the spread of infection if necessary.
  • Investigate ways of harnessing the use of technology to limit the amount of face-to-face contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. For customer facing organisations, consider introducing or maximising the use of self-service options and online services.
  • Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours to keep your business going. If this happens, you will need to comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998  to ensure appropriate length of daytime working hours, night shifts and rest breaks.
  • Have in place plans that will enable the organisation to operate on a skeleton staff if necessary. Identify key services and roles that are essential and can’t be put on hold, as well as projects or roles that could be temporarily stood down. Identify those individuals and managers who have transferrable skills, who can fulfil more than one function and could be allocated to more essential roles.
  • Carry out a resourcing risk assessment of the organisation, identifying essential areas of the business where few employees have the required skills. Training additional employees in these skills should be considered. Ensure that procedures are developed to ensure smooth handovers for employees who are filling in for colleagues in unfamiliar roles. It may be necessary to provide additional training and a risk assessment if individuals are moving to roles where there may be a healthy and safety risk.
  • If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements and communicate the business reasons to employee.

SYLO Associates thoughts are with the affected, their families and their work colleagues. If you require support in regards to actioning any of the above please call us on 01844 216290 or email us