Coronavirus: how should HR approach self-isolation?

With the UK threat level escalating and businesses forced to send staff home, people professionals must prepare now for instances of employees quarantining themselves

Typically, being asked to work from home is a welcome event. But for 300 London-based Chevron workers this was not necessarily good news. 

The US oil company’s London Canary Wharf office was emptied on Tuesday (25 February) after an employee who had recently returned from a country affected by coronavirus – also known as Covid-19 – reported flu-like symptoms. The company followed government guidelines stipulating that anyone at risk of having contracted the virus must isolate themselves for a period of 14 days.

Chevron is not alone. Staff at media agency OMD UK immediately left their Fitzrovia office recently after an employee returning from Australia and Singapore began showing flu-like symptoms, and a number of schools have also closed over the risk posed by the virus.

So far more than 7,000 people in the UK have been tested, with 15 confirmed positive cases, leading the government to declare the virus a ‘serious and imminent threat’ to the British public. Matt Hancock, UK health secretary, yesterday warned the public to brace for more cases as he laid out the government’s ‘four-point plan’, and urged travellers returning from northern Italy, Iran and two cities in South Korea, designated as special care zones, to self-isolate and call the NHS 111 service, even if they had no symptoms.

There have been no calls yet for a shutdown of businesses like the one seen in Wuhan, China, ground-zero of the current outbreak. But concerns have particularly escalated following 11 towns in Italy – home to a total of 55,000 people – being quarantined, with no one allowed to enter or leave the towns without special permission. 

In the past two days, Austria, Croatia, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Georgia and North Macedonia have reported their first coronavirus cases, all involving people who had been to Italy.

So it is likely HR professionals will face increased instances of staff self-isolating over the coming days, and will need to consider now how to approach this.

If an employer has specifically told an employee not to come into the workplace because they have been to an affected area, they would “ordinarily get their normal pay”, says Bethan Mack, solicitor at DAS Law. And employees who are actually ill because of coronavirus would be entitled to statutory sick pay or contractual sick pay.

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But what if an employee chooses to self-isolate rather than the business imposing this? Acas guidelines state if an employee has been told to self-isolate by a medical expert, have had to go into quarantine or are not able to travel back to the UK, there is no statutory right to pay.

But both Mack and Acas advise that paying the employee is in everyone's best interest, as staff concerns surrounding not getting paid could lead to some attempting to come into work when they shouldn’t. “If an employee is quarantined and their time off would be considered unpaid, it may be worthwhile for you to consider the absence as sick leave and comply with any sick pay requirements,” says Mack.

She adds that employees have a duty of care towards staff to provide a safe work environment. “If an employee is adamant they wish to return to work, you may decide to suspend the employee on health and safety grounds,” she says, adding that in such a case the employee in question would have to be paid as normal.

Consistency across an organisation is key, says Paul Holcroft, associate director of Croner, and employers must ensure no employee is singled out because of their race or ethnicity. This also holds if employers choose not to pay employees who self-isolate. “While this is not unlawful, employers should be consistent in their approach if more than one employee is affected to avoid claims of less favourable treatment,” he says.

Victoria Cook, senior associate at Bates Wells, says employers need to take care not to cause unnecessary alarm, and ensure any steps they take are reasonable. “Employees also have a duty to look after their own health and safety and that of their colleagues, which includes following self-isolation advice and cooperating with the employer to ensure a safe workplace,” she says.