Monkeypox: what should employers be doing?

While the disease is ‘not another Covid’, experts say, there are still considerations for businesses around sick pay and self-isolation if an employee contracts it

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The monkeypox virus may have emerged in the UK, but experts have said it is “not another Covid” and have urged employers to follow official guidance.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) found the symptoms for most people have been mild, only causing severe illness in some cases such as young children, pregnant women, and individuals who are immunocompromised.

Referred to as a ‘rare disease’, there have only been 71 cases in the UK over the last few weeks. Last week the government advised employers who encounter monkeypox cases to follow UK Health Security Agency (HCA) advice – which is for the infected person to self-isolate for 21 days, and to avoid the workplace.

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A recent update to CIPD absence management advice states that “the disease is dramatically less contagious than Covid-19 and is a pre-existing virus with available treatments”, and also refers employers to the HCA advice.

“An important point to make is that monkeypox is not another Covid,” said Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, who says confirmed cases should be treated under normal sickness rules.

However, she warned issues could arise where an employee is advised to self-isolate. While working from home could be a solution for many, Palmer pointed out that not being able to work remotely can bring up the question of sick pay.

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"[Statutory sick pay] will not be payable for the isolation period unless the employee gets too ill to work during it,” she explained. “In a similar way to the current Covid isolation position, employers will have to decide whether they will require close contacts with a confirmed case to not come to work for the 21 days or whether they will still require them to come in.”

The situation is different in instances where an employer asks someone who has been in close contact with a confirmed case to stay away from the workplace, says Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law. In this scenario, failing to provide full pay could lead to claims of unlawful deduction from wages, as it is the employer refusing to allow the employee to work.

Sally Swingewood, lead standards development manager at the British Standards Institution (BSI), said the best practice would be to support workers required to self-isolate or quarantine, “including covering the cost of quarantine, if practicable, so that workers do not come to a workplace when they should not because of concerns about pay”.

Alongside enabling workers to work from home and making reasonable adjustments for quarantined workers, she also said companies should protect workers from reprisals when reporting potential cases of illness or incidents, such as exposure to the disease.