Covid-19 coronavirus and employers: What we know so far

Workers in northern Italy wear masks to protect themselves
IPA/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Coronavirus continues to dominate the headlines, most recently as a hotel in Tenerife is put into lockdown after a visiting Italian doctor tested positive for the flu-like illness, also known as Covid-19.

A number of Britons are among the holiday makers in the hotel, and there are concerns that 500 or 600 people staying in the resort could have come into contact with the virus, returning to various places in Europe and increasing the risk of it spreading.

Employers are already feeling the knock-on effects, with major City businesses sending staff home, putting business travel bans into place and hurriedly referring to sickness policies and provisions to ensure they’ll stack up in the event the situation worsens. Meanwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged headteachers not to close schools as pupils and teachers return after half-term trips to Italy.

Here’s what we know so far, and how that might impact employers:

The number of cases continues to rise

According to the latest information from the Department of Health, there are now 13 cases confirmed in the UK, after four further patients tested positive for the virus earlier this week. Of great concern is the return of holiday makers or business travellers from Northern Italy, which has had to deal with more than 300 cases and 11 deaths in recent weeks.

Globally, cases of the virus exceed 80,000, the vast majority in China, where Covid-19 originated in December in the province of Wuhan. The World Health Organisation this week said that the world should do more to prepare for a possible pandemic.

Employers are sending workers home

Covid-19 coronavirus and employment

Infectious diseases in the workplace policy

Reports revealed that a number of employers, including Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered, have told London-based staff returning from China that they must stay at home to avoid potentially spreading the virus among City workers.

US oil company Chevron has reportedly told workers in its Canary Wharf office to go home after one employee experienced flu-like symptoms and is being tested for Covid-19.

Other employers in the financial services sector including Citigroup and Deutsche Bank have restricted employee trips to Italy over fears that the virus outbreak there could spread.

But not all staff can work from home

According to Julian Cox, head of employment at law firm iLaw, someone’s ability to work from home will differ hugely if they’re desk-based and rely on technology to someone who has a customer-facing role in a hotel or restaurant. “If you’re an accountant for example, there’s no reason you can’t continue to work from home if you have no symptoms. Self isolation should not mean downing tools,” he says.

But what if the employee cannot work from home because of the nature of their job? It’s worth communicating to them the duty of care you have as an employer to not endanger other staff or customers, referring them to appropriate public health advice on the issue and potentially a medical professional for a reliable diagnosis. Regular contact with the employee during the quarantine period will help to ensure a smooth return.

Clear communication pays off

“Getting on the front foot with your HR communications on this will help,” advises Kate Ledwidge, senior associate in the London employment team at law firm JMW. “Set out how employees should behave in work from a hygiene/hand-washing perspective, but also that you expect to be informed if any employee has been to one of the affected areas or has been in contact with someone who has.”

This means it will be easier to have robust conversations with employees who may be anxious about coming into work, she adds. “It’s also important to enforce your normal absence reporting procedures, so there is less temptation for sick days to snowball as other employees decide to take time off.”

Continue to communicate if the situation changes, too, says Ledwidge. “You may begin with a policy, for example, where you continue to pay everyone while they self-isolate or are required to work remotely, but allow some flexibility in this. If it gets to the point where there are large proportions of the workforce on sick leave or people away for extended periods, your stance on this could change so make employees aware that it is under review.”

On the whole, you’ll still need to pay them

What happens if an employee was recently on holiday in Tenerife or northern Italy? Guidance published last week by Acas suggests that if an employee has recently travelled to an affected country, the organisation can request they work from home, and that should receive their usual pay during that time. There is no statutory right to pay someone if they are not sick, but it’s good practice, the conciliation service adds.

Whether they’re paid or not may depend on their contract status, adds Cox from iLaw. “If someone couldn’t come in and work for a hotel and was on an hourly-paid contract, for example, that would be different to someone who could easily work from home on a permanent contract,” he explains. In the latter case, it’s advisable to keep paying the employee as normal. If they develop symptoms of the virus, then treat them as you would any other employee on sickness leave and pay.

Staff might refuse to come into work

With the news dominated by coronavirus headlines and the tendency for rumours and misinformation to spread quickly, some employees may express concerns about coming into work in case they catch the virus.

Acas’ advice is to listen to any concerns staff have, and if there are genuine concerns (such as information about a colleague displaying symptoms), to investigate these and take action.

“If an employee still does not want to go in, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this,” it says.

Business travel is on the back burner

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is currently advising against all travel to Hubei province in China and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China, the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea, and 10 small towns in the Lombardy region and one in the Veneto region of Italy. And the Department of Health and Social Care has provided information and advice for the public for travellers returning from:

  • Mainland China
  • Hong Kong
  • Macao
  • Cambodia
  • Iran
  • Northern Italy
  • Japan
  • Laos
  • Malaysia
  • Myanmar
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam

In response to the growing threat of Covid-19, many employers are imposing restrictions on non-essential travel, particularly to the areas listed above, and relying on video conferencing or other methods of communication instead.

Where employees are already on a trip, they should “make reasonable attempts to return to the UK and get back to work. If they are not able to return, find out if it is possible for them to work remotely,” according to Stephanie Byrne, a director at employment law and health and safety consultancy Loch Associates.

“Employers may wish to pay a discretionary amount in lieu of salary for the period if the person was on a business trip. You must treat employees consistently or there may be risks of successful discrimination claims,” she adds.

Ledwidge from JMW adds: “The trouble now is that it’s not just travel to Asia that’s affected, it’s spreading into Europe and even major rail stations, airports and conferences have been affected.

“While it makes sense to ban all business travel to the known high-risk areas, it may be a step too far to ban all travel, for example insisting that employees cancel holidays.”

Supply chains and office locations could be cut off

The spread of coronavirus is not only a concern for employers because of the health issues, it is also having a deleterious impact on supply chains and companies’ ability to do business.

For example, construction manufacturer JCB announced earlier this month that it would cut hours because of a lack of components arriving from China. The company reported that 25% of its suppliers in China were closed, while others were working at reduced capacity.

If a manager discovers that an employee is displaying potential symptoms of the illness, there is also the possibility that a whole workspace would need to be shut down and other employees forced to stay away from work. This happened recently at a Clarks store in Cheshire after fears a staff member had contracted for the virus, but they ultimately tested negative and returned to work.

There is no legal requirement for employers to close their workplace during a flu pandemic or an infectious disease outbreak, but employers should check guidance from the Department of Health or the relevant public health body on a regular basis.

Put in place a contingency plan

In addition, they should pay greater attention to hygiene measures to reduce the risk of transmission, and consider putting a contingency plan in place in the event that the threat escalates.

According to XpertHR, a flu pandemic contingency plan might include:

  • Review of alternatives such as homeworking or from different premises
  • Possibility of enforced holiday, shorter weeks or even redundancy
  • Review of workplace technology capabilities and whether they enable remote working, as well as whether staff have access to broadband or appropriate equipment.

Sarah Evans, employment law partner at JMW Solicitors, says: “HR departments should be using this time to plan ahead should this scenario play out, looking carefully at health and safety policies to ensure that all communication to employees is clear and considered, with contingency plans in place for the absence of workers.

“Ultimately, both businesses and employees need clear, joined-up advice from the government and UK health agencies.”

Article updated on 27 February.

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3 Responses to Covid-19 coronavirus and employers: What we know so far

  1. Avatar
    Amanda Edge 26 Feb 2020 at 2:32 pm #

    I don’t believe this article isn’t accurate with regard to FCO advice against all but essential travel to the list of countries referred to.

  2. Avatar
    Lily 27 Feb 2020 at 12:39 pm #

    Agree with Amanda – the list of countries is not correct with regards to FCO advice – they have not advised against all but essential travel to those countries. FCO only puts this advice very reluctantly in situations where there’s a definite threat. This is really important to get right at the moment with misinformation spreading quickly.

    You can find the accurate information here and would suggest updating the article accordingly.
    https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

  3. Rob Moss
    Rob Moss 27 Feb 2020 at 2:56 pm #

    Thank you Amanda and Lily. We have updated the paragraph before the list of countries. You’re correct. The list relates to countries for which the government has provided advice for returning travellers.

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