With the SARS virus in the news on a daily basis and television
pictures of a deserted Beijing, what should employers in the UK be doing to
protect their employees and their business from the effect of this outbreak?
Sue Nickson answers some frequently asked questions.
Are we obliged to quarantine employees returning from high risk
The Department of Health does not currently (23rd April 2003) recommend
the mass quarantining of travellers returning from the Far East or Canada.
It states that the correct approach at this time is to screen those
leaving areas where there is an identified risk of transmission of infection.
Government advice to schools and colleges does suggest that "in
exceptional circumstances" where an individual has been exposed to a known
SARS case in an infected region, it would be prudent to monitor that person’s
health for a period of 10 days. It is not, however, general policy in respect
of all persons returning from such areas.
Should we quarantine them?
Despite Government policy, many schools and some employers are taking
further steps such as requiring persons returning from infected areas to remain
away from school or work for a period of 10 days after re-entering the UK.
Whether this is necessary will depend on each individual business.
How should we decide?
An employer has a legal duty to take reasonable care of the health and
safety of its employees. At this stage, each employer should carry out a risk
assessment as to the possibility of exposure to infectious individuals in the
course of employment taking account of the advice from the Department of
The outcome of that assessment will determine what steps – if any – the
employer needs to take. For some employers, this will certainly mean bringing
staff back from offices in infected areas (if this has not already been done)
and considering whether to require those returning from travel in risk areas to
remain away from work for 10 days so that their continued health can be
What advice should we give our employees?
You should also ensure that your employees are made aware of the
symptoms and the countries/areas where there is an identified risk of
As at 23 April 2003, the UK public has been strongly advised not to
travel to these areas of risk:
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China
Check with the Department of Health website at http://www.doh.gov.uk/traveladvice/emerg.htm
for the latest information on areas considered high risk.
Clearly, employers must not ignore any Government advice against travel
to these areas. Employees too should be advised to be vigilant and to report
any concerns regarding symptoms or contact with persons recently returned from
infectious areas and to see their own GP if they feel it appropriate.
What about medical advice?
Employers should not give unqualified medical advice. If an employer
does feel it necessary to take any measures or introduce a policy in respect of
SARS and the workplace they should provide all employees with the relevant
information. Employers should also ensure that they keep up to date with the
advice from the Department of Health (www.doh.gov.uk/sars/index.htm).
Any other advice
It is important that vigilance does not turn to panic. The Department
of Health has confirmed that as at 23 April 2003 the risk of acquiring SARS in
the UK is "very low". Whilst the Department of Health has warned that
– due to the nature of a virus – the way in which SARS will progress is not
predictable, it has also advised that there will be no hesitation in taking
further action should the situation change. Employers should ensure that further
risk assessments are carried out in light of any such change.
Sue Nickson is a partner and
national head of employment at Hammonds. Sue can be contacted on 0870 839 0000
or via email: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
official resources for information and advice about SARS:
and Safety Executive
Information on SARS including advice to employers www.hse.gov.uk/sars.htm
Links to the latest UK travel advice for those going to or returning from areas
that may be affected by SARS, communications from the Chief Medical Officer
(CMO) and the Department of Health and responses to Frequently Asked Questions www.doh.gov.uk/sars/index.htm
and Commonwealth Office
Travel advice www.fco.gov.uk/travel
Disease outbreak news www.who.int/csr/don/en/
ahead of the curve www.doh.gov.uk/cmo/idstrategy/
Read the chief medical officer’s 2002 report, which sets out an infectious
diseases strategy for England, as published on the Department of Health
thanks to XpertHR for their help in compiling this resource. http://www.xperthr.com/