Coronavirus poses potential risks to employers, and the health and well-being of employees. Current health warnings are that the risk of infection is low. Consider the most recent medical advice available and keep up to date with the latest advice on travel. It is incumbent on us to maintain a sense of proportion and to take measured and appropriate steps. Public Health England state that the average number of flu deaths in England for the last five years has run at 17,000 annually, so it is important to get a perspective about Coronavirus compared with other types of illnesses.
Peter Stanway, our BackupHR™ legal expert comments:
Employers are under a duty to ensure the health and safety of all their employees, and to provide a safe place of work. These duties exist under common law and statute. Employees are also under a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that they do not endanger themselves or anyone who may be affected by their actions, or omissions at work. Employers should consider what they can do to protect their organisation and workforce. For example, they should issue clear guidance to employees who have recently travelled to China or who have been in contact with someone who has. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan. Do not insist that an employee travels to such an area for work-related purposes. You could advise employees against travel to such areas for both work and holiday purposes. Practical alternatives to travel include postponing a trip, and holding meetings via Skype/video conference if possible.
We are not advocating devising a policy at this stage, but if you are asked by concerned employees, you should send the message that you are keeping matters under review, and will respond as and when the UK Government suggests appropriate action. You might add they need to comply with any safety instructions issued in such circumstances. Failure to do so should be seen as a serious breach of rules.
There is currently no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension of non-symptomatic employees returning from holiday, or work in an area known to have experienced incidences of Coronavirus. Pressure from colleagues should not be regarded as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension. Where a returning employee appears to be symptomatic of potential exposure, according to the latest Government advice they should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people, as you would with flu, and then call NHS 111 to inform them of their recent travel arrangements.
If a doctor certifies them unfit for work, then they should be treated as off sick as per normal operating procedures. Colleagues who have had contact with the employee should be made aware of the symptoms, and advised to seek medical advice. If a doctor does not certify the employee unfit for work, but you remain concerned, then consider briefly suspending them on precautionary grounds. It will normally have to be on full pay as you are, preventing them from working, unless you can come up with alternative work arrangements. If employees can work from home, it may be wise to require the employee to work remotely for a period, until cleared by a doctor.
How employers respond to workers who don’t want to travel right now will depend on the reasonableness of the employee’s objection. Accommodate older employees or those with immune-deficiency and pregnant women, as they are at greater risk.
Employers should also ensure that employees affected by coronavirus, or suspected of having it, are treated respectfully and not subjected to unlawful discrimination in the workplace. Guard against employees, such as Chinese migrants, being harassed or vilified in the workplace. These situations must be dealt with sensitively but firmly.
- Check employment contracts and policies to see if there is scope to direct employees to work from home, not attend for work, or place them on leave.
- Keep up to date with Government and Public Health advice.
- Regularly review international work travel plans in line with guidance provided.
- Ensure Managers know how to sensibly manage employees returning from Asia.
- Develop a contingency plan, which is proportionate to the true risk.
- Prepare a staffing strategy to work flexibly, or on a skeleton staff in the event that the Government substantially step up their advice about Coronavirus.
- Do not panic or allow others to spread alarm.
The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action make sure that you know what you are doing, or call us for a free initial chat on 01480 677980.