Whilst coronavirus is still primarily affecting people in China, increasing outbreaks in Europe mean it may not be long before the Government announces it can no longer contain the spread of the virus.  

The full impact is yet to be felt in the UK but it is important employers put in place measures now for dealing with this eventuality. Taking steps now will help to keep businesses running without compromising the health and safety of employees. We set out below our top tips for planning for and coping with coronavirus.

Ensure you put in place contingency plans now

The main difficulty facing businesses is that there are likely to be high levels of staff absence for a variety of reasons including illness, quarantine, self-isolation, caring for others or as a result of travel restrictions. In anticipation of this employers should:

  • consider maximising the potential for as many employees as possible to work at home in order to keep everything running;
  • consider options for other methods of communication e.g. video-conferencing, using webcams, telephone conferences rather than face-to-face meetings;
  • ensure that IT systems can cope with large numbers working remotely;
  • identify staff who have interchangeable skills who could stand in for each other as well as considering back-up from external sources – this is particularly important in respect of key staff who should also be identified;
  • ensure that any staff who are required to carry out unfamiliar jobs are given appropriate training;
  • ensure that any emergency contact details of key staff and contact information for all staff is up-to-date and circulated;
  • identify a central reporting person for all employees who call in sick as a result of coronavirus, or who are taking steps to self-isolate, to enable the business to monitor its impact on the business;
  • if employees are willing to work longer hours as a result of absences, ensure that the provisions of the Working Time Regulations are complied with such as adequate rest breaks, signing an opt out agreement where appropriate.

Review and, where necessary, update your policies

Employers should review and update employment policies and procedures which may be affected and monitor any changes to official advice. These include:

  • absence and sickness
  • dependant leave
  • flexible working/home-working
  • travel

Put in place measures to protect the health and safety of your employees

Employers are under a duty to take steps which are reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of their employees and not subject them to unnecessary risks of injury. As part of this duty employers should:

  • carry out a risk assessment considering whether any factors make employees particularly vulnerable to infection e.g. high level of contact between people or travel and consider measures needed;
  • inform and update employees on the latest position and provide them with awareness training on the facts and the risks.  In particular:
    • Ensure training is given on hygiene issues to minimise the risk of spreading the disease and encourage good hygiene practices;
    • Consider other hygiene measures e.g. installation of hand-gels, encouraging hand-washing, encouraging use of disposable tissues and ensuring thorough cleaning of all work-surfaces;
    • Put up signs to remind employees and visitors of their responsibilities.

Plan for and manage absence effectively

Dealing with high levels of staff absence combined with health and safety obligations means employers should try to reduce or prevent the spread of infection in the workplace by:

  • promoting an environment where staff who feel unwell are not afraid to inform their employer and go home until they are well;
  • ensuring any absence/sickness policy explains how the employer will deal with someone who has symptoms at work or who has been exposed to someone who has or may have those symptoms;
  • decide how any payment for absence will be treated where working from home is not possible and review any return to work procedures.
    • If absence is due to having coronavirus – the employee will be entitled to sick pay;
    • If absence is due to being required to self-isolate on medical advice but the employee is not ill – according to the Government the employee is entitled to sick pay, however, some employers are paying employees in full. The legal position is far from clear and specific advice should be sought;
    • If the employer closes the workplace due to infection – the employees should be paid as normal;
    • If the employee is not ill but is refusing to come to work as they are anxious about the risks listen carefully to their concerns and if possible, offer flexible working arrangements such as homeworking. They can also request time off as holiday or take unpaid leave but there is no obligation on employers to agree to this. Awareness of the facts should minimise scaremongering but this can be a difficult issue to handle and should only be treated as a disciplinary issue where it is reasonable to do so;
    • If the employee chooses to visit a country on holiday which is known to have a high incidence of coronavirus and the employer has warned them in advance they will need to be quarantined when they come back – they should be put on unpaid leave on their return for the period of quarantine.
  • considering how this may impact on staff with dependants and be sensitive to staff needs while caring for family members; and
  • considering how to treat those staff who are more vulnerable, such as pregnant employees, or those who have underlying medical conditions.

Ensure good communication with staff

Effective communication between management and staff about what the business is doing to prepare and why as well as providing training and awareness is very important.  Employers should:

  • keep employees/employee representatives informed about any changes to policies and procedures;
  • consider preparing a Q&A document for employees covering the main issues and where they can get further information.

Monitor official guidance

It is good practice to ensure that someone is responsible for continually monitoring official guidance and any requirements imposed by the Government.  Useful websites include:

  • The government publishes daily updates at 2pm with the latest stats and advice on the number of cases, the risk level and links to further information.
  • Acas has also produced workplace specific guidance which sets out the steps employers should be taking.

Lay-off and short time working

Where absences and shutdowns result in a downturn in work some employers may be able to lay-off employees temporarily or reduce their hours in certain circumstances:

  • Short time working is where the employer provides the employee with less work and less pay for a period of time while retaining them as employees.  It’s a temporary solution to the problem of no or less work. Lay-off means the employer provides no work and no pay while retaining the employees as employees.  These are an alternative to dismissal.
  • An employee’s contractual and statutory rights differ depending on whether the employer has an express contractual right to lay-off or put on short-time working or an implied right through custom and practice or no contractual right to do so.
  • Employees may also be able to claim a statutory guarantee payment on up to 5 “workless days” in a three month period.  The employee does not need to be on lay-off or short-time working to receive a guarantee payment.
  • This link to guidance on short-time working and lay-offs provides more information.

 In conclusion

Planning and preparation is key. Although it is not possible to plan for every eventuality, careful and thorough preparation should help limit the impact of coronavirus. It remains the case that more people are currently dying or being infected by the winter influenza viruses than coronavirus, so a sensible perspective needs to be maintained.