Novel coronavirus: issues for employers

Published on
4 min read

We explore the issues that employers will need to address if their staff may have been in contact with the new coronavirus.

Introduction 

At the time of writing, the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has not become established in the UK population.  The Government is concentrating its efforts on preventing, or at least delaying, an epidemic.  On 10 February, it passed emergency legislation (effective in England only) which gives it powers to impose screening and isolation in the “rare circumstances where voluntary cooperation cannot be obtained”.

The possibility of staff being placed in quarantine to prevent the spread of an infectious disease raises issues for employers that have not commonly been encountered since the SARS outbreak more than 15 years ago.  

This note does not attempt to address the additional issues that arise when employing staff in clinical or care settings.

Dealing with staff who have been instructed to self-isolate

The situation is changing day by day, so both employers and their staff will need to keep up to date with the latest Government guidance and follow advice from health professionals.

In the absence of express provision in their contract of employment or in a relevant workplace policy, it will be appropriate to continue to pay employees during any quarantine period in most circumstances.  Where the conditions of isolation and the nature of their job make this possible, quarantined staff can be expected to continue to work remotely.  If no meaningful work can be done, the quarantine period can be treated as a period of suspension on medical grounds.

Dealing with staff who have contracted the virus

Once a member of staff has become ill the employer’s contractual provisions on sick leave will apply. If infection with the novel coronavirus is confirmed, it would be appropriate to ask for medical confirmation that employees are free from it before allowing them to return to work.

Workplaces from where a confirmed case has emerged may need to be closed for a limited period to be disinfected.  Employers will need to work with health authorities to take appropriate and proportionate steps, in consultation with their staff, to isolate any people who have been in close contact with that person.

Appropriate preventative measures

Steps that employers should consider taking now include:

  • Ensuring staff have access to up to date and authoritative advice about the steps that they should take if they have been in contact with someone infected with the virus or have recently returned from an infected area;
  • Stepping up workplace hygiene measures – for example increasing frequency and intensity of cleaning and promoting good hand hygiene;
  • Undertaking an appropriate risk assessment before asking staff to travel to infected areas, or to attend events to which people from infected areas are likely to travel;
  • Revisiting general health and safety advice to staff about infectious diseases – for example renewing advice about the importance of normal seasonal flu vaccinations.

Broader staff welfare issues

A threatened epidemic of this nature – even if the death rate appears relatively low compared with other coronavirus outbreaks – is bound to cause anxiety, particularly among staff who are more at risk of catching the virus or are likely to be more severely affected if they do catch it.  The fact that this outbreak is currently largely concentrated in China is also a factor to deal with, since there may be a perception that people of Chinese or East Asian origin are more likely to be carriers of the infection.

Here are some issues that may need addressing:

  • Support for staff in quarantine: employers can have a role in ensuring that staff members in quarantine are given access to appropriate advice and support during what is likely to be a stressful and isolating experience;
  • Reassurance for other staff: access to timely and fact-based information is vital, particularly regarding the steps the employer is taking to reduce the risk of the virus spreading;
  • Respecting privacy: the circulation of information about staff who are or may be affected should be kept to a minimum and should respect data protection principles, as with all health-related information about employees;
  • Addressing increased risks of discrimination: there have been reports in the press about increased public hostility to people of East Asian origin.  Employers need to be ready to deal firmly with any such behaviour. 

Assessing organisational risk

Staff welfare will be the paramount consideration, but organisations should be aware of the risks posed by the current outbreak to their operations.  At present the risk of a temporary shut-down to deal with an outbreak in the UK is small, but the impact of the extensive outbreak in China is already being felt across the world.

Impacts already apparent include shortages of some goods and components manufactured in China, travel restrictions, and the wider impact of the extensive industrial shut down in China on the global economy.  Employers will need be satisfied that their disaster recovery policy appropriately addresses these additional risks, as well as dealing with the operational effects of unexpected staff shortages.

Sources of advice

There is no shortage of official advice, which is being updated on a daily basis.

Here is a selection of the main general resources available, which should be supplemented by appropriate sector-based guidance:

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