In response to growing concerns over the threat of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, in the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson announced in parliament today that the rules would be changed to allow statutory sick pay (SSP) to come into force on the first day of absence.
Johnson said he was making the changes in response to concerns that people who were potentially ill with the virus might feel they had no choice but to go to work and spread it further, rather than take time off and stay at home. Under the current rules, SSP only comes into effect after three days of absence.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK has risen to 53, and the government warned yesterday that, at the peak of an epidemic, up to a fifth of the workforce could be absent from work. England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has described an outbreak in the country as “almost certain”.
- Coronavirus could mean a fifth of the workforce is off sick, government warns
- Unions call for sick pay for outsourced workers in suspected coronavirus cases
- Coronavirus: the latest
But while employers are being encouraged to prepare for staff to self-isolate if necessary, experts have said there is still a grey area around when sick pay is owed. Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs last week that “self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes”.
But what exactly are organisations’ responsibilities in an ever-changing scenario?
While it is recommended that individuals who have been to affected areas self-isolate for two weeks, employers’ policies around staff whose friends or family have travelled to these areas could become increasingly complicated.
Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter
David Harris, managing partner of DPH Legal, said that the situation for employers was far from cut and dry. “The true position is that it's unclear,” he told People Management. “But it's unlikely to be the case that self-isolation – which may have been recommended by a medical professional or of someone's own volition – would be considered to be sickness absence, and therefore it wouldn't trigger the obligation to pay sick pay for those reasons.”
Harris said that in terms of express policies for self-isolation, employers faced “a blank page of paper”, but added that while sick pay obligations may only be applicable in the case of someone catching the virus, employers “need to exercise a duty of care towards all their staff”.
In the event a staff member is at risk of catching or passing on the virus, “the safest thing to do would be to require them to self-isolate for a couple of weeks and to pay them in full for that period”, he said.
He also warned employers that their obligations could change as the situation developed. “The government could introduce a statutory instrument to address this situation, so to impose an obligation on employers to pay [sick pay] where individuals are required to self-isolate.”
However, HR and employer leadership teams have more than their legal obligations to consider. Unions and other specialist bodies have spoken out about the importance of supporting workers to self-isolate when necessary.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady wrote to both Hancock and work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey yesterday, warning that inadequate provision of sick pay could put more people at risk, as it could encourage staff to attend work to avoid losing wages.
“No one should be out of pocket for doing the right thing,” she said in her letter, “but as it stands, many people won’t be able to meet basic living costs if they stay home from work.”
She described a reform of sick pay legislation, so that all workers were covered, as “the fairest and simplest solution”.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, recommended that employers be “as generous with their sick pay and leave policies as possible, both to support staff health and wellbeing, and to minimise any impact on their pay”.
But he noted that if worse-case predictions of a fifth of workers on sick leave came to pass, it would be “a huge test of UK businesses on how agile they are, how equipped they are to enable staff to work from home and how they can keep their business running with fewer staff”.
Blair Adams, partner at Winckworth Sherwood, also expressed concern. “In these early stages, most employers have been taking a benevolent and socially responsible approach to low levels of Covid-19 related absence, such as self-isolation, treating it as exceptional and involuntary,” he said.
However, he warned that if an epidemic were to break out, the resources may not be available to support workers to such a full extent, noting that “employers may soon need to consider their longer-term approach to a number of people-related issues”.
Chadi Moussa, client partner at Let’s Talk Talent and former HR director, said that while HR teams had many grey areas to consider, employers could make sure they created a culture in which staff took the best decisions for their health. “I think it's important organisations don't put employees under undue pressure to deliver [work projects] when actually it makes far more business sense to try and prevent something that will cause a lot more long-term damage,” he said.
Moussa added that “being sensible but also practical” was of greatest importance.