Third of businesses have no plan for if an employee tests positive for coronavirus

10 Mar 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

People Management and CIPD survey reveals how HR professionals are responding to the virus, with experts stressing the importance of patient confidentiality

A third of employers do not have a plan in place for if one of their employees tests positive for coronavirus, a poll of People Management readers has found.

As the spread of the virus, also known as Covid-19, continues across the UK, People Management and the CIPD have polled more than 640 HR professionals to find out what they are doing in their organisations to deal with the threats posed to the health of employees and their businesses.

HR professionals answered questions on continuity planning, sick pay and self-isolation, and People Management will be releasing the results throughout the week.

The poll found 33 per cent of employers did not have a plan in place for if one of their employees tested positive for coronavirus (67 per cent said they did).

It also found a mixed picture when it came to predicted reactions to this scenario. When asked what their likely response would be, nearly half (45 per cent) said they would send home any staff who had come into direct contact with the at-risk employee, 30 per cent would immediately close the site the employee had attended, and a quarter (24 per cent) said they would allow employees to self-isolate if they were concerned, but would not mandate this. 

Dr Debora Gottardello, lecturer in human resource management at Cranfield University, said that in the event of an employee contracting the virus, the relevant authorities such as local authority health protection teams must be notified. “HR can also communicate to employees the presence of a case within the company, making sure to maintain the confidentiality of employees with confirmed coronavirus,” she added, stressing that it was important the individual was not identified.

Mini Setty, partner at Langleys Solicitors, reiterated that businesses must withhold the infected employee’s identity under UK data protection law. “A worker’s personal health data is 'special category data', and therefore must be omitted from any communication with the rest of the workforce,” she said.

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“A business is able to let employees know the geographical location of the confirmed coronavirus case; it cannot provide any details that would allow the individual to be identified.” 

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, said employers that find themselves in a potential outbreak situation should ask affected employees to self-isolate, and that communication with their co-workers should remain “calm”.

“If colleagues could have been exposed to an individual suffering from the virus, employers should calmly inform staff of the situation and tell them what steps the company will take going forward,” he said.

Price added that staff themselves were likely to be concerned and push for the introduction of measures to limit the spread. But despite this, transparency was essential, he said: “Gossip and workplace rumours may prove to be more damaging for morale than simply being honest.”

Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR and former associate HR director at the Disclosure and Barring Service, said support was also essential for the individual infected. “This is someone who doesn’t want the illness and they didn’t contract it deliberately. They may be worried for themselves and their immediate friends and family too, and possibly feeling guilty for unknowingly transmitting it to others,” he said.

“Explain to them that you will need to inform their co-workers who may have come into contact with them and listen to what concerns they have about that before agreeing a way forward.”

Cookson added that employers must provide emotional support to combat the feelings of “loneliness and abandonment” that self-isolation could cause. He suggested video chats with colleagues, home visits (if safe) and regular messages to reconnect the employee with the workplace could all help. This can “build stronger commitment and more effective relationships”, he said.

Gottardello advised that employers' legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees meant that “collaboration is necessary”. She said “workers also have an obligation to report to the employer any situation of danger to health and safety in the workplace”.

This is the first in a series of articles this week revealing the results of People Management and the CIPD’s exclusive coronavirus survey. Check the site tomorrow for more

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