March 11, 2020

COVID-19 Coronavirus: What Employers Need To Know

What do we know about coronavirus? 

The family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS and MERS, are called ‘coronaviruses’. The current outbreak of coronavirus is a new or ‘novel’ strain and is called COVID-19. 

Coronaviruses are Zoonotic; which means they spread between animals and humans. The SARS outbreak in 2003 and the current outbreak are thought to originate from the bat population of China.

Symptoms range from a sore throat through to life-threatening pneumonia. Current evidence suggests that the virus is most dangerous to those already vulnerable as a result of existing medical illnesses. 

What happens next? 

If the SARS outbreak of 2003 is a model for the spread and effect of this new virus, then the UK will see little impact. Back in 2003, more than 700 people died from SARS globally, but with precautions in place, the UK saw just four SARS cases, none of which were fatal. 

Further, with a potential repatriation of UK citizens from the affected areas in China, there is close monitoring of at-risk travellers. 

But what should employers be doing? Well, you can’t afford to ignore the issue. In fact, the actions taken by all in 2003 were fundamental to the prevention of the spread of the virus into and across the UK. 

Key Health & Safety considerations for employers

  1. Ensure good hygiene standards are enforced across the business and provide alcohol-based sanitising hand gels or wipes
    • Note that alcohol wipes break down the structure of the virus but not all products are the same. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that ethanol-based products are more effective against viruses. A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of these products against re-emerging viral pathogens (e.g. severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV)). The study determined that these and other similar viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both ethanol-based and isopropanol-based sanitising gels. 
  2. Care homes and other medical or care sector employers should consult the NHS guidance – see link here. 

Employees with symptoms

If anyone becomes unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature in the business or workplace they should be sent home and advised to follow the stay at home guidance.

If they need clinical advice, they should go online to NHS 111 or call 111 if they don’t have internet access. In an emergency, call 999 if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk. Do not visit the GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

If a member of staff has helped someone who was taken unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell with symptoms consistent with Corona Virus infection.

It is not necessary to close the business or workplace or send any staff home, unless government policy changes. Keep monitoring the government response page for the latest details.

Limiting spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in business and workplaces

Businesses and employers can help reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) by reminding everyone of the public health advice. Posters, leaflets and other materials are available.

Employees and customers should be reminded to wash their hands for 20 seconds more frequently than normal.

Frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, using your standard cleaning products.

What are the HR issues? 

Absence Reporting

Employees should continue to follow existing company absence reporting procedures if for any reason they are unable to attend their nominated place of work and undertake their contractual duties. ​Given the exceptional circumstances, employers may need to be flexible if a company absence reporting procedure requires written evidence to cover a period of sickness in excess of seven days; employees may not be able to obtain this due to self-isolation. NHS 111 can provide email confirmation to callers which should be taken as the equivalent of a GP fit note. At the very least, keep careful records of all communication from absent employees

Sick Pay – Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 contain a declaration by the Secretary of State that the incidence or transmission of novel Coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health, and the measures outlined in these regulations are considered as an effective means of delaying or preventing further transmission of the virus.

Assuming that someone who self isolates does so because they are given a written notice (see here), typically issued by a GP or by 111, they are deemed in accordance with the SSP Regulations to be incapable of work, and are therefore entitled to SSP. If the employer offers contractual sick pay, it’s good practice to provide this.

If somebody chooses to self-isolate, and/or is not given that written notice, then they are not entitled to SSP.

Those told not to attend work by their employer (more akin to suspension on health and safety grounds) means subject to specialist advice, full pay should probably be paid.

On 11 March 2020 the chancellor announced a budget of £2bn to support firms with fewer than 250 employees with the costs of having employees off sick. The cost of paying SSP for up to 14 days per employee will be refunded by the government for a temporary period.

It’s important to note that government guidance on the Statutory Sick Pay reclaim scheme is worded to include those who are off work ‘because of COVID-19’ which is a much broader category than those who are diagnosed with COVID-19.

It’s likely that the Emergency Measures Bill at the end of the month will also extend SSP into the current three day waiting period. There is currently no legal requirement for companies to pay SSP from Day 1, although doing so voluntarily over the next couple of weeks may help stop the spread of the virus into an individual workplace by removing a ‘barrier’ to staying off.  This could provide benefits in the longer term.

From a viewpoint of what is the current minimum statutory requirement, employers should pay SSP as normal, making sure to keep careful records, and watch out for announcements (including via our blog posts) of when and how the refunds will be made.

**Information in this blog was correct at the time of  writing, however with government and legislation changes happening daily some of this may now be out of date.** 

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About the author

Philip Barker

About the author

Philip Barker

Philip has worked for Moorepay for over nine years, starting as a Health & Safety Consultant in February 2008 before taking up the position of Consultancy Manager in January 2015. Coming from a retail background, both as a store manager and health & safety professional, he already had a good cross industry experience. Working at Moorepay has provided an opportunity to broaden both knowledge and experience across a wide range of industry sectors. Philip started his health & safety career after a number of years managing retail stores and holds a HNC in Environmental Health Studies, a Diploma in Environmental Policy and a NEBOSH Diploma.

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