Latest legal lowdown on coronavirus

6 Mar 2020 By Joanne Holborn

With the situation changing almost by the hour, Joanne Holborn answers some of the most pressing questions for HR

What should I be doing now?

The government has been praised for its transparency on how it is proposing to cope with a serious outbreak of coronavirus in the UK. Employers should take its lead – keep your workforce fully up to date on all the measures you are taking to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. Make clear too what employees should be doing; for example, by putting up notices in public places reminding people to wash their hands. 

More broadly, you should also look at business-related travel plans and consider whether they are essential.

Additionally, you should look at your workplace policies surrounding working from home, flexible working, sick pay and entitlements to time off work so you are clear as to company policy surrounding all these circumstances. 

Should I be putting together a contingency plan?

Absolutely. Thinking about all the ways the coronavirus could affect your business – whether it’s disruption to supply chains, cancelled contracts or employee absence – will help you plan for all eventualities. Consider the likely immediate impact, plus the potential impact and how best you can handle this.

It’s worth putting together a contingency team that can take decisive action should a pandemic occur. They could also be responsible for keeping up to date with the latest advice from the government and Public Health England. Acas is also an excellent source of information for employers. 

Beware of discrimination claims

There are worrying reports of racist coronavirus-related incidents. It is therefore important not to single anyone out because of their race or ethnicity, as well as ensure coronavirus fears don’t lead to employees treating those with Asian backgrounds unfairly. 

How do I determine if an employee is entitled to sick pay? 

This is a question being asked by many. Health secretary Matt Hancock has said that people not able to go to work because they are in self-isolation on medical advice should be treated as if they are on sick leave, and are therefore entitled to statutory sick pay, which employees are now entitled to from their first day off. 

So, if an employee has been told by their doctor or NHS 111 to go into self-isolation, they are entitled to statutory sick pay. However, if an employee chooses to self-isolate themselves (eg, not following medical advice) then they are not entitled to that pay. Employers should consider each case carefully and think about alternative options, such as allowing employees to work from home or take holiday for the period of isolation.

Being well informed yourselves as to the virus, its symptoms and associated risks, will help you make informed judgements. 

Could school closures affect my workforce?

With the news that Italy may close all schools and universities, businesses should prepare for the possibility of school closures that could affect your workforce. Your employees are entitled to time off to deal with family emergencies, such as if they have to look after children or elderly parents. There is no statutory right to pay for employees in these circumstances, unless your business agrees to pay for such time. It is advisable to consider now how you would act in these circumstances. 

What if employees don’t want to attend work?

Understanding the risks yourselves will help you listen to concerns and, where appropriate, reassure employees. More importantly, it will help you decide whether an employee is right to stay away from work. 

What if I suspect one of my employees has coronavirus?

If an employee displays coronavirus-related symptoms and has recently returned from an affected area, it is important to act. The affected employee should not come within two metres of anyone else. While they are on work premises, they should self-isolate in a closed room (if possible) and use their own phone to call 111 as the medic will need to speak to them directly. If they are seriously ill, you should call 999.

Joanne Holborn is an employment law specialist at Baines Wilson

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