Three HR and employment law experts take a look at Coronavirus and how it could affect your business. Peter Jones of the HR Dept Swindon and Wiltshire offers practical tips on keeping your employees and customers safe and your policies updated, while David Israel of Royds Withy King and Angela West of Goughs look at sick pay – and when it should (and shouldn't) be paid.
Coronavirus – it's essential to be prepared
Novel coronavirus, or Covid-19 to give it its official name, has been dominating news headlines since it was first identified in Wuhan City, China back in December last year.
Since then cases have been diagnosed in 31 more countries across the globe including the UK. And last month, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a public health emergency.
Typical symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath which may progress to more severe symptoms. And, as with most viruses, those with weakened immune systems are more at risk.
Despite all best efforts at containment, this virus has spread. And so it falls to UK businesses and public sector organisations to make a plan for the worst-case scenario.
This may seem like a daunting prospect, but don’t be overwhelmed. You’ll undoubtedly know more than you think.
Upcycle your existing policies
The duties you have towards your employees are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The law requires you to do what good management and common sense would lead you to do anyway: take appropriate measures to reduce the risk of harm “so far as is reasonably practicable”.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (the Management Regulations) detail these requirements more specifically and, like the Act, they apply to every work activity. The first requirement on employers is to carry out a risk assessment.
How vulnerable you are to the risk of coronavirus will obviously depend enormously on what type of operation you are running.
A small, remote office will have different requirements to a care home or a cruise liner, for example. Industry bodies relevant to you may provide specific advice, like the Quality Care Commission for example.
So, start by looking at your existing H&S policies. Have you got procedures in place for infection control? Are your HR policies on sickness absences appropriate?
Once you are familiar with your current documentation, assess the risk of coronavirus in your organisation. Identify any pressure points and which members of staff are most vulnerable to the virus.
Though it may seem obvious, being explicit about good hygiene practices and following the guidance of the World Health Organisation on suspected infection and travel, will stand you in good stead. Once you have identified the risks and established measures to minimise them, enhance your policies as necessary.
Monitor official advice
I’d also recommend keeping up to date with, and following, advice given by the UK government, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for travel advice, and Public Health England as this is very much a fluid situation.
Business continuity planning
With your risk assessment done, you can begin to develop a business continuity plan, a plan that will be specific to your organisation. You may need to adopt some measures immediately.
If your business involves international travel you should strongly consider avoiding places where there have been outbreaks of the virus, following official advice.
Explore the possibilities of working from home and consider whether your staff need extra protective equipment to do their jobs.
There are no curfew/wider quarantine situations in place in the UK at the time of writing. But this could change. So be ready for your business to comply with them.
If you are providing essential services, your business plan should consider staffing resources should the situation worsen.
Communication is the key
Preparing for the potential risks of coronavirus cannot just be a theoretical exercise. It’s vitally important once your plans are in place to communicate clearly to staff.
Promote infection control and hygiene advice widely around your organisation. Designate a staff member or members to monitor any spread of the virus and implement your plan should that be necessary.
Peter Jones runs the HR Dept in Swindon and Wiltshire www.hrdept.co.uk/offices/south-west/swindon
Sick pay guidance is welcomed
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stated that employers should pay sick pay to employees who have received medical advice to self-quarantine. He told MPs last week that “self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes”.
This clarification is welcomed and deals with what was until now a grey area, with ACAS previously advising that there was no legal right to such payments. As the Health Secretary said: “That is a very important message for employers and those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick, because it is for medical reasons.”
This guidance is welcome, providing much-needed clarity at a time when questions are being raised. It is important to note, however, that if an individual chooses to self-isolate without any medical guidance they will not qualify for statutory sick pay.
If a place of work needs to be shut down, employers should have a policy and plan in place. They will need to consider if people can work remotely, what the contact arrangements are to keep employees up-to-date, and other measures that will need to be taken to best ensure that a business can continue to operate.
If the workplace is required to shut down, in most cases employers will need to continue to pay their staff as normal, unless the employee can work remotely but voluntarily choose not to.
I would offer this advice to employers:
- Determine what proportionate steps should be taken by the company concerning day-to-day work, such as the provision of hand-sanitisers, ability to work remotely, and other steps.
- Determine when and in what circumstances sick pay is to be paid, including the reporting framework for employees so that the policy can be applied on a consistent basis.
- Set up a central point of contact for your employees and managers, so that queries and issues can be addressed, again on a consistent basis.
- Ideally prepare a written policy detailing issues such as (i) steps to be taken by employees, such as washing hands, (ii) how and who to report any concerns regarding coronavirus, (iii) the situations in which sick pay will and will not be paid, including reporting, and (iv) travel on company business.
David Israel is an employment partner at law firm Royds Withy King in Swindon www.roydswithyking.com
Advice for employees and employers
At the heart of every business are their employees. So what are employers required and ‘expected’ to do if they are affected by this, and what happens if an employee is absent from work due to Coronavirus?
If an employee is sick due to having contracted the virus, what is their entitlement to sick pay?
If an employee is absent from work due to having contracted the Coronavirus, their sickness should be treated in the same way as any other sickness. Entitlement to contractual sick pay will depend on the employee’s contractual terms, but in the absence of company sick pay an employee would be entitled to receive statutory sick pay.
There has been a question mark as to whether the usual waiting days would apply, not least due to the somewhat extraordinary circumstances.
Since the Government emergency task force met at the beginning of this week, new legislation has in fact been announced meaning that the three waiting days will not apply where sickness is due to the Coronavirus.
Is an employee entitled to sick pay if they are told to self-isolate?
What is slightly more controversial is whether an employee is entitled to sick pay because they are told to place themselves in self-isolation or quarantine. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said that those in self-isolation on medical advice should be treated as on sick leave.
However, the definition of sick leave under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 states that “a day shall not be treated as a day of incapacity for work…. unless on that day the employee concerned is or is deemed in accordance with the regulations to be incapable by reason of some specific disease or bodily or mental disablement”.
Take the following steps now:
- Ensure your workforce are educated on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Whilst this has been regularly reported in the news, don’t assume your employees will have taken heed. Consider issuing advisory emails, or call a meeting to review the recommended guidelines for hand hygiene and what to do if an employee experiences symptoms or becomes ill
- Provide hand sanitiser and/or facilities to enable employees to adhere to good hand hygiene. If you have mobile workers place hygiene wipes in vehicles and direct that these must be used
- Undertake risk assessments if employees are or could come into contact with individuals who could be considered ‘higher risk’
- If travelling as a feature of an employees role, consider adjustments to limit the risk
- Be open to other adjustments such as home working, video conference calling and other means of limiting face to face contact
- Review your I.T functions now, and plan for how your business could continue to function if the worst was to happen
- Follow Public Health England guidance and lead by example
Angela West is an associate solicitor at Goughs www.goughs.co.uk