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Emma O'Connor


Below are some of the issues and questions which you might be impacting your business in light of the current Coronavirus outbreak. This summary is based on current Public Health England and government advice as at 29 March 2020. The advice and messaging around the Coronavirus (or COVID-19), is changing rapidly. The main themes are be vigilant, prepare and be flexible (as you can be) in this developing situation. It is important to check government websites as well as take specific legal advice. This guide is based on employers and employees; although, some advice will apply to your total workforce as well as to your customers and guests. This guide is spilt as follows:

Part 1- introduction and current government advice

Part 2- how can we prepare our business and workforce – some practical suggestions

Part 3- how can we support our business and workforce: key messages for employers

Part 4 - pay, continuing work, “furlough” – the (new) future workplace need

Part 3 - how can we support our business and workforce: key messages for employers

What about staff returning from abroad – what should we do?

There is specific advice from PHE and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) about travel.  Much will depend on where staff have returned from. Except in the cases of excluded countries, PHE advice that staff can continue to attend work unless they have been informed that they have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or present with any symptoms or fall within the government’s guidance above on family member self isolation. If individuals are aware that they have had close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 they should contact NHS 111 for further advice and also keep you informed (as well as following the self-isolation guidance).

Should we stop workplace travel?

At this stage yes – all foreign and domestic travel should cease. The Foreign Secretary announced on 17 March 2020 that Britons should avoid travel 'globally' under new travel advice from the Foreign Office. The new rules will initially be in place for 30 days. Whilst the advice is only to avoid travel, both in the UK and globally, this really puts the brakes on workplace foreign and domestic travel so employers should look for alternatives to face to face meetings.  If travel is an absolute must – and there must be really unavoidable reasons for it and the employee must be on board with this too – then think about the practicalities around health and safety, travel insurance, protecting the employee and also will the employee be able to get home? Under the circumstances, it would be wiser and safer to avoid all travel. Other ideas could be to allow staff to travel at quieter times of the day to avoid rush hours or introduce flexible working. Also, think about the way your staff commute into work – if they are still travelling to work.  If home working is not an option, could they maybe drive to work and be given a parking space or help with parking/travel costs? Risk assessments and knowledge of the employee’s health are key here. 

What if individuals in the workplace have come into contact with someone (either inside or outside of work) who has confirmed covid-19?

Current PHE advice is to contact your local Health Protection Team who will work with you to identify staff that could be at risk.  Those who work in close proximity to, who are friends with, who have been coughed on (for a length of time) by someone who is symptomatic would be at main risk.  Also, anyone who has cleaned up any bodily fluids would also be at risk of infection spread. Staff who have not had close contact with the original confirmed case might not need to take any precautions and can continue to attend work. Those who are “at risk” will be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days from the last time they had contact with the confirmed case – the current advice is that they themselves do not have to be displaying symptoms to self-isolate. These people will be actively followed up by the Health Protection Team and if they become unwell with cough, fever or shortness of breath they will be tested for COVID-19.

Under your SICKNESS ABSENCE POLICIES and general communication you should keep in contact with all your staff that are infected and also self-isolating so you can assess the situation and make a risk assessment as well as offering support.

Even if individuals have not been advised to medically self-isolate, they may be in roles which might lead to greater risk of infection for your business. In these situations, the advice might be that they too should self-isolate voluntarily – see government advice above. 

What if someone falls ill at work with suspected covid-19?

The key thing is that the individual should be at least 2 metres (7 feet) away from other people and ideally kept in an isolated room such as a sick bay or staff office. They should avoid touching anything and use a use a separate bathroom from others, if possible. The unwell person should use their own mobile phone to call either 111 or 999.  The business should also follow its continuity plans and contact PHE as steps above will need to be taken in terms of identifying risks.  

Could we be asked to close the workplace because of infection or spread?

Possibly but current government advice is that this is unlikely.  In suspected workplace cases, the advice from PHE is to wait for the outcome of test results although encouraging staff to be extra vigilant in the meantime would appear sensible. Similarly, with a confirmed workplace case, again PHE do not recommend closing the workplace. A risk assessment will be undertaken by the local Health Protection Team; for example, you may be advised to undertake a deep clean of communal areas and/or at risk individuals will be identified and appropriate containment steps taken. However, the situation may change depending on the circumstances and who is infected (or suspected of being). If a business is advised to close, it appears to be for a short time for cleaning and/or isolation. Having a clear contingency plan and also a key point of contact is again advisable.

What if a client closes their place of work?

If you have employees working at client sites and they close their place of work think firstly, do these employees (as well as other workers) need to self-isolate? Your duty is to your staff first and foremost. Work with the client to understand the risks to your people. This might also involve taking advice from PHE. Work with your people – can they be redeployed to other parts of the business reasonably and safely? Can they provide additional cover? Have they been advised to remain isolated (and by who?) or should they do so voluntarily? In these situations check the contract terms with the client – are they still liable to pay you?

In circumstances as employees are available to work but the client has closed, and they cannot reasonably be redeployed into your business, the advice is that they would still have the right to be paid by you (see advice in isolation cases). With other workers the position would depend on the contract as to whether they can be deployed or be paid.

What if employees do not want to go to work

Some employees have genuine concerns so listen to them.  Those with an underlying health concern will be particularly worried at this time. Can you resolve their concerns? For example, if possible, could you offer flexible working, home working or allow holiday to be taken? Ultimately, if an employee unreasonably refuses to attend work, it could result in disciplinary action being taken. Signpost your workforce to any Employee Assistance Programme or wellbeing initiatives.

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.


Get in touch

If you have any questions relating to this article or have any employment issues you would like to discuss, please contact the Employment team on [email protected]

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