Coronavirus could mean a fifth of the workforce is off sick, government warns

3 Mar 2020 By Francis Churchill

Newly published action plan says employers could be told to encourage working from home if outbreak worsens

Up to a fifth of the UK’s workforce could be off sick during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, the government has warned in its latest plan for controlling the spread of the virus.

In an action plan, published this morning by the Department of Health and Social Care, the government said it could start advising employers to encourage more members of staff to work from home as part of “population distancing strategies” being considered to contain the virus if the outbreak worsens.

The report said that although the impact of an outbreak on businesses was still uncertain, “it is possible that up to one-fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks. This may vary for individual businesses.”

It said the government is already working with key sectors, including social care, to ensure services are still being provided in the event staff are off sick, but warned some services may have to be cut back. It is also looking to make it easier for recently retired doctors to come back to work in the case of a shortage of medical professionals.

Prime minister Boris Johnson warned yesterday there could be a “significant expansion” in the number of cases of Covid-19, the condition caused by the coronavirus. The number of confirmed cases in the UK is currently 39.

However, speaking on the BBC’s Today programme earlier this morning, health secretary Matt Hancock said the action plan only outlined steps that might have to be taken “if this becomes a pandemic”, and that the current advice was still to carry on largely as normal normal.

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“What we’re saying right now is, so long as you follow the advice from Public Health England, and you wash your hands more often than you would… then you should carry on your ordinary business as normal,” Hancock said, adding that even in a “reasonable worst-case scenario” it would be weeks before the virus becomes widespread.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said the coronavirus outbreak would be a “huge test” of how agile UK businesses were, and how well equipped they were to enable staff to work from home or keep their businesses running with few staff. “Employers must place the health and wellbeing of staff at the heart of their contingency planning and response,” he said.

Willmott also recommended that businesses be “as generous with their sick pay and leave policies as possible”, and called on the government to create a hardship fund to help those who are self-employed or not eligible for sick pay. “This could help people in less secure employment get through these exceptional events and would minimise the risk of people coming into work and spreading the virus if they have been exposed.”

Hancock said individuals self-isolating for medical reasons would be covered by statutory sick pay. “Self-isolating for medical reasons if you’re healthy counts as being sick in the [statutory sick pay] legislation,” he said.

Speaking to People Management, Tracey Hudson, director at The HR Dept, said employers should be “pragmatic” about letting people work from home if they request it, even if they have no reason to suspect anyone in the workplace is carrying the virus.

“If somebody in the office is really paranoid and really panicky and they’re just sitting there all day worrying, they’re going to make themselves ill. So let them just work from home if you can,” Hudson said.

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