Coronavirus: One in five workers could be off sick at once

Boris Johnson outlines the government's coronavirus action plan this morning. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Wire/PA Images

As many is one in five staff could be off sick at the same time if the Covid-19 coronavirus takes hold in the UK, according to government plans published today.

Employers should be prepared, where possible, to encourage greater home working and understand the impact of a coronavirus epidemic on their operations, particularly in the light of potential school closures and restrictions on public gatherings.

At a press conference outlining the government’s coronavirus action plan this morning, the prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The plan has four strands: containing the virus, delaying its spread, researching its origins and cure, and finally mitigating the impact should the virus become more widespread. That is, contain, delay, research, mitigate.

“Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus, this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover as we’ve already seen.”

Repeating the mantra for people to wash their hands long enough to sing Happy Birthday twice, Johnson added that at this stage: “I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual.”

The action plan said that while data was still emerging, the government is uncertain of the impact of an outbreak on business. “In a stretching scenario, 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 advising businesses to build their resilience by reviewing their continuity plans and following its advice for employers. Published last week by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Public Health England, the guidance includes what employers should do to prevent the spread of coronavirus, how to deal with people who may have it, and how to handle employees returning from affected areas overseas or who has had contact with someone suspected of having it.

Is self-isolation time ‘off sick’?

As reported by Personnel Today yesterday, the government has faced calls to better ensure that workers on casual contracts or working in the gig economy will self-isolate when necessary, despite the significant impact it would have on their income. There have also been questions on whether self-isolating constitutes being sick.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Matt Hancock, health secretary said: “We’ve got a statutory sick pay [SSP] system in this country and self-isolating for medical reasons if you’re healthy counts as being sick in the legislation.” Hancock added that government would keep the rules under review.

Emma Ahmed, professional support lawyer for Hill Dickinson, told Daniel Barnett’s employment law bulletin that she was surprised at Hancock’s assertion. Everything she had read suggested that while it was good practice to treat it as sick leave, technically it did not qualify as a person in precautionary self-isolation was not “incapable” of work.

She looked into the relevant legislation – the Social Security, Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, Statutory Sick Pay (General) Regulations 1982 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 – and found that, provided employees “have been given a PHE self-isolation notice by a doctor or NHS 111, and are not just staying at home because they’re scared, Matt Hancock is right and they are entitled to SSP (and presumably contractual sick pay)”.

Hill Dickinson said this was the situation in England and their team was looking into how the law applied in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As news emerged that the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK had risen to 51, Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The NHS is preparing for this virus to spread significantly and we need to plan for the worst while doing everything possible to contain and delay widespread transmission. As the plan makes clear, what we do individually will make a difference, and that especially means taking steps to protect the vulnerable.”

He added: “This is the first containment phase, but we all understand that as the virus spreads, we will need to flex NHS resources to the demand. This is likely to mean that where clinicians believe we can safely defer routine operations and treatment, the service will do so. Containment and delay is also vital because there should be some respite as the normal winter infectious diseases ease off when the warmer weather arrives. But we should be in no doubt about the intense pressures on all parts of the service.

“We just need to remember that when it needs to, the NHS is able to adapt, deploy its amazing staff in different ways and adjust its priorities – and that can mean selecting those in greatest need and making their care the priority.”

Over the weekend Hancock said that recently-retired nurses and doctors could be called back to the NHS to help handle demand during a coronavirus outbreak. Measures could include the emergency re-registration of retired health professionals, emergency indemnity coverage for healthcare workers providing care or diagnostic services, and a relaxation of rules around staff-to-pupil ratios in schools and nurseries, as teachers go on sick leave.

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