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How can employers reduce the risk to employees?

Employers have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees. So they should make sure they keep on top of government guidance, communicating with their employees about best practices and providing washing facilities, tissues and hand sanitiser to their employees.

Employers should encourage employees who have returned from an at risk area, or who are displaying coronavirus symptoms, not to come into work.

It is a good idea for employers to allow their employees to work from home, if they are able.

Can an employer insist that an employee self-isolates?

Although Public Health England's guidance is only that, an employer should follow it. So, yes, an employer can insist that an employee stays at home if they have recently returned from an at risk area as an employer would be complying with its duty to protect its employees' health and safety. Hopefully employees will agree to work from home, if that is possible. Ultimately, an employer could suspend the employee if they insisted on coming in.

Public Health England's website/ guidance is updated daily and has a list of at risk areas/ countries.

It is a good idea for employers to keep up to date with government guidance and communicate with employees that they are expected to follow this guidance and any other guidance that an employer may issue on this.

Can a business ask non-employees not to enter the building?

Public Health England guidance is currently to continue with business as usual (other than individuals who have visited at risk destinations self-isolating to 14 days) which would include having visitors to the workplace.

A business could ban visitors to the workplace, but it should be careful not to single out people from a specific area as this may leave them open to discrimination claims.

Businesses who deal with people who are at a higher risk if they contract coronavirus, such as care homes, may want to restrict non-essential visitors in order to protect their residents. Other companies, whose clientele are not high risk, may want to consider whether banning all visitors would damage trade.

If not banning visitors, displaying signs around a workplace is a good way of communicating to both staff and visitors that they should not be there if they have recently visited from an at risk area and that they should follow Public Health England guidelines on hygiene.

Can an employer insist that employees come into work?

If an employer insists that an employee, who should be self-isolating, comes into work, it could potentially face claims for constructive unfair dismissal as it had breached its duty to protect the health and safety of its employees. Such a claim could be made by the sick employee and colleagues who were affected by the sick employee coming into work.

Do employees who are self-isolating have to be paid?

Hopefully the employee would be able to work from home, in which case they would be paid as usual.

If this is not possible as the employee is able and willing to work, the employer has an obligation to pay them full pay, unless there is something in their contract of employment which says otherwise.

Do employers have to pay sick pay?

If an employee is sick and self-isolating, they will be entitled to their usual sick pay.

Employees are now entitled to statutory sick pay from the very first day that they are off work either self-isolating or sick with coronavirus, rather than from the fourth day as was previously the case. Sick notes can now be provided to employees if they contact NHS 111, rather than them having to visit their GP.

Many employers are relaxing their sick pay policies and paying employees who are self-isolating full pay even if they have exhausted this under the terms of their policy.

What can an employer do if an employee is not following hygiene and self-isolation rules?

This is potentially gross misconduct. If an employer has made it clear that employees are expected to follow Public Health England's guidance on self-isolation and hygiene, and the employee persistently fails to do this, they would be entitled to take disciplinary action against the employee for failure to follow a reasonable management instruction.

What if an employee doesn't want to come into work because they are scared of infection?

The employer should listen to the employee's concerns and try to resolve them. This is particularly the case if the employee in question is at a heightened risk due to disability or pregnancy.

The employer could allow the anxious employee to work from home if possible. Also consider things like allowing employees to change start and finish time so that they don't have to commute on public transport during rush hour.

What if an employee needs time off work to look after a child whose school has been closed?

With rumours circulating that schools are likely to have an extended Easter break this is likely to be an issue that arises. Employees are entitled to a "reasonable amount of time off" to look after dependents; this time off does not have to be paid but employers should check their own polices in case they say anything different. Generally the time off will be limited to a few days.

Employers should consider other options such as whether they can vary the employees hours/ days temporarily to accommodate this; allow the employee to take holiday or unpaid leave. 

If dependents become seriously ill, employers will probably be expected to be more flexible when it comes to granting time off.  Indeed, it is rumored that the Government is going to bring in legislation to allow employees to have time off – we await further information.

What happens if someone becomes ill with suspected coronavirus while at work?

The sick employee should immediately isolate themselves, stay at least 2 meters from others and go into a private room. They should avoid touching things and use a separate bathroom, if possible. They should use their own phone to call 111, or 999 if they are seriously ill.

Employers are advised to have a self-isolation room and to advise employees of where this is and what the procedure is

Should a workplace close if someone becomes ill with suspected coronavirus at work?

A workplace does not have to automatically close if someone becomes ill with suspected coronavirus at work.

The employer should contact its local Public Health England health protection team who will carry out a risk assessment and give advice on any precautions that need to be taken.

Do employers need to cancel meetings and events?

Current Public Health England advice is that there is no need to cancel meetings or large scale events or initiate working from home at the moment. We expect this to change as we move into the "delay" phase of outbreak control.
Employers should keep up to date on the latest government guidance and Public Health England guidance, in case this position changes.

What if the workplace needs to be closed?

If employees cannot work from home and the workplace needs to close as employees are willing and able to work they should still be paid their usual salary during the closure unless their contracts say otherwise.

Employers should consider amending contracts so that you have the power to temporarily lay-off workers or put them on short-time working, so they can ensure that their businesses can survive a workplace closure without having to make redundancies.

What should employers be thinking about if lots of employees are working from home?

It is likely that social distancing measures, which will include employers encouraging employees to work from home, will be put into place by the government very soon. Employers therefore need to be thinking about whether employees have the necessary IT equipment to allow them to work from home. Many employers are testing their arrangements to ensure they work before they have to be used on a mass scale.

Employers should ensure that employees contact details are up-to-date and advise employees how it proposes to maintain contact.

Employers should also remind employees about such things as working hours when working from home; supervision; confidentiality and data protection; external appointments; business travel and so on. 

Can employers ban their employees from travelling to at risk countries?

Current Public Health England advice is that there is no need for employers to cancel travel, other than to at risk areas. It is important for employers to keep on top of the latest list of at risk areas and Foreign Office travel advice.

Banning personal travel to certain countries can open an employer up to potential discrimination claims as an outright ban might inadvertently discriminate against employees from a certain place. It would be better to insist that someone self-quarantines when they get back, rather than banning them from going in the first place.

Is there any assistance available for employers who are financially affected by coronavirus?

Increased absences from people self-isolating or who are sick due to coronavirus are likely to add to the financial pressures faced by employers, in the form of having to pay more sick-pay than usual and having lower output due to a reduced workforce.

The government has announced a new Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme to support small businesses with this problem. This scheme allows businesses with a turnover of £41 million or less to apply for a loan of up to £1.2 million. The government will then cover up to 80% of this loan, with no fees.

The government has also announced that it will refund statutory sick pay, paid due to coronavirus, for up to 2 weeks to businesses with up to 250 employees.

If businesses are struggling financially due to the pressures of the coronavirus outbreak and have outstanding tax liabilities, a dedicated helpline has been set up through which businesses can agree a bespoke Time to Pay arrangement.