As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK continues to grow, employers are needing to consider a range of measures to help protect their staff, clients and businesses.
From advising people not to shake hands at meetings to allowing employees to work from home, there are a number of ways that companies can deal with the outbreak.
Noting that a number of its clients in the area are implementing measures to restrict travel, both within the UK and internationally, Ipswich-based law firm Prettys has seen a change in the way that Suffolk businesses are operating.
Vanessa Bell who is head of employment at the firm discusses some of the measures currently being taken in the region: “meetings are being held by telephone or video conference and some of our clients have restricted movement between different offices. They are also ensuring equipment is available enabling more employees to work from home.
“We are also seeing temporary changes to sick leave policies and some employers are considering making adjustments to their emergency leave policies and policies relating to dependents such as children, elderly or vulnerable people.”
Prettys’ team of legal experts also take a look at other issues facing businesses…
Absence and Sick Pay – Matthew Cole, Partner and Employment Lawyer
With people beginning to question whether they are entitled to sick pay and normal payment during self-isolation, urgent legislation has been brought in.
The Prime Minister announced last week that employers should be taking the illness seriously and said those suffering will get statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day off work. The change, which is being introduced in emergency legislation, is expected to mean an extra £40 for people receiving SSP – which is set at £94.25 a week and paid by employers.
The aim of this new legislation regarding payment of statutory sick pay from day one is to ensure people with coronavirus do not feel financial pressure to come into work and risk spreading the disease.
Health and Safety – Louise Plant, head of personal injury
There are simple steps that can be taken to ensure people within the business are kept safe from the coronavirus.
Employers should take steps such as providing staff with sanitizing hand gel or wipes and take measures to ensure that good hygiene is enforced across the business as far as possible.
It goes without saying that if any employees were scheduled to travel to affected regions that steps are taken to consider postponing those visits.
It is important that where there is a risk, employers take steps to ensure the chance of infection is contained so that it is not spread further.
If you are aware that you have a pre-existing illness or condition that makes you more vulnerable then you should flag this up to your employer, in particular if there is a heightened risk within the business.
If an employer is put on notice that one of their employees is more vulnerable and that there is a heightened risk that the coronavirus could impact upon their employees, then they should undertake a risk assessment accordingly. This will take into account employees’ vulnerabilities and take all necessary steps and precautions to reduce the risk as far as possible to prevent the spread of the virus.
Employees Working Abroad: Head of employment law Vanessa Bell
The coronavirus poses challenges for businesses which operate internationally or whose staff regularly travel around the globe.
We recommend employers monitor staff’s business and leisure travel and establish protocols for reporting and isolating for those who may be displaying symptoms of the virus.
Business travel for instance may be avoided by offering alternatives such as videoconferencing or using Skype.
Firms should audit its workforce’s key players and ask the questions – are any or all of them located in high risk areas? How would the business be affected if they were all infected with the virus at the same time? Is the business sufficiently resilient or could steps be taken now to relocate some or all of those workers to separate and/or low-risk locations? Do your contracts give you the flexibility to relocate them?
Also, be mindful of current guidance advising workers returning from abroad to self-isolate if they display symptoms of the virus.
Clearly if their symptoms are mild, they may be able to continue working remotely. The general rule is that employers must pay the wages of staff who are available for work, even if no work is provided.
Finally, employers must look out for any signs of discriminatory conduct or behaviour. Some businesses have already experienced discrimination towards Chinese nationals or those of an Asian ethnicity or background. Take immediate disciplinary action or seek legal advice if such conduct is identified.
What if you’re returning from holiday abroad?
Consider what evidence (e.g. travel documents, doctor’s letter etc.) you may require to reduce possible abuse. In the event staff become ill whilst in quarantine then their absence can then be treated as sick leave and the usual notification and certification requirements will apply.
For workers who become ill while on holiday, remember that they have the right to convert holiday to sick leave, enabling them to take the holiday at another time. Employers should ensure they have robust holiday policies in place which give them some control over when the holiday can be taken and avoid potentially damaging interruption to business operations.
Business Contracts – Graham Mead, Partner
When it comes to contracts it is unlikely there would be a clause that covers a pandemic. However, a Force Majeure clause may be in place, which looks at an unavoidable catastrophe that has the potential to interrupt any expected course of events.
The coronavirus might come under the Force Majeure clause. This would give the parties involved the chance to be excused from carrying out the terms of a contract or to revise it in order to reflect current events. The clause itself will define what qualifies. For example, it could list pandemics, epidemics or similar health emergencies.
If such a clause does cover the current coronavirus situation, then a business would need to take the appropriate steps to invoke the clause under the contract and to also understand what this would mean. Sometimes the clause may mean the contract is suspended, liability may be excused, extensions of time may be granted, or the parties have the right to renegotiate or terminate.
If you are affected by the coronavirus, you should check your existing contracts now. If you are entering into a new contract that may be affected, you should draft its terms clearly to cover the outbreak.
COVID-19 reached the UK in late January and since then over 23,000 people have been tested. Thursday 5 March saw the largest increase of people testing positive and the UK sadly reported its first death related to the virus. The prime minister’s official spokesperson said it was ‘highly likely the virus is going to spread in a significant way’. If you have any employment or business concerns relating to COVID-19 please contact [email protected] or call 01473 232121.
For more information regarding travel please see below:
The guidance as at today (9 March) from the Chief Medical Officer for England is that anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Cambodia, Iran, Northern Italy, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Tenerife (H10 Costa Adeje Palace Hotel), Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days, and is experiencing cough or fever or shortness of breath, is to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.
If employees have returned from one of the above-named destinations it is necessary to consider did that employee return to work and therefore come into contact with other people in the workplace? Is there a risk that they may have passed the virus on?
If so, guidance should be sought from the NHS or the government.