If you have seen the news at all in the past month, you will need absolutely no explanation as to what coronavirus is! However, on the slight chance that you might have been living under a rock, COVID-19 – widely referred to as ‘coronavirus’ is, according to the World Health Organisation, “pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China”. It was declared a “public health emergency” on 30th January 2020.
There are, at the time of writing, 53 confirmed cases in the UK. Many fear the impact on businesses if the virus continues to spread and, for example, a number of your staff are off work at the same time, or the UK enters a widespread quarantine, as has happened in Wuhan. The Government’s Coronavirus Action Plan states “In a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks”, though employers should note that the Government themselves consider this to be “stretching”.
But what should businesses be doing?
There are steps that businesses can take now, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and to lessen the impact of the potential pandemic on their businesses:-
Remind staff of actions to reduce exposure i.e. regular handwashing particularly before eating or preparing food, and after using the bathroom.
Ensure that your toilets are stocked with antibacterial soap (obvious, but necessary). You might also consider providing hand sanitiser and tissues for staff use, reminding staff to throw used tissues in the bin immediately.
Keep facilities clean and tidy.
Avoid, where possible, requiring business travel to affected areas.
Considering providing face masks to vulnerable employees, or staff working with vulnerable people (e.g. care workers).
Ensure that staff are aware of the symptoms and that managers are able to spot the symptoms and know any relevant reporting procedures e.g. sickness absence procedures.
Do you have to pay your staff if they are self-quarantined?
The Government’s advice is for anyone experiencing symptoms of coronavirus to self-quarantine. However, they are also advising any travellers returning from high risk areas to self-quarantine, even if they are not experiencing any symptoms. So, what are your obligations to pay members of staff who are quarantined?
Where someone has coronavirus symptoms the situation is clear: they are sick and entitled to sick pay (whether under a company sick pay policy or statutory sick pay). However, you might need to make allowances if your workplace sickness policy requires evidence from the employee. For example, the employee might not be able to get a sick note ('fit note') if they've been told to self-isolate for 14 days.
The situation is less clear where someone is self-quarantined but is not experiencing symptoms. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has sent guidance to UK employers telling them staff who have been asked to self-isolate are entitled to take the time as sick leave. However, the strict interpretation of legislation suggests that this would only be the case where the person has been given a written notice, typically issued by a GP or by 111 that they must self-isolate due to coronavirus. If they do not have written notice, then there would be no such entitlement. That being said, we would suggest it is ‘best practice’ to allow an employee to take the time as sick in either event because:
You may encourage people to come into work when they are supposed to be in self-isolation due to the financial pressures of not earning for two weeks; and
As set out above, employees in quarantine may struggle to obtain written evidence of their incapacity.
As an alternative, many employees may now be able to work from home during a period of self-isolation if their role allows for this. If an employee is working from home, they should be paid as normal.
What about staff caring for others?
If your staff request time off to care for a dependant e.g. a child, spouse, or parent, who has contracted coronavirus, you must allow them to time off. However there is no right to be paid for this time. You should also monitor the situation carefully as an employee who is caring for someone with coronavirus is at higher risk of contracting the virus themselves, requiring them to self-isolate as above which would trigger their entitlement to sick pay.
If you have any queries regarding managing sickness absence, please contact Charlotte Braham on 01494 521301.