January 31, 2020
2019-nCoV Coronavirus: What Employers Need To Know
The new outbreak of coronavirus has killed 213 people and almost 10,000 are infected. The virus has now spread across China and to at least 18 countries globally with two coronavirus cases confirmed in the UK. Is there anything employers should be doing? Read on to find out.
What do we know about coronavirus?
The family of viruses that include the common cold, SARS and MERS, are called ‘coronaviruses’.
China’s current outbreak of coronavirus is a new or ‘novel’ strain and has been temporarily assigned the name 2019-nCoV.
Coronaviruses are Zoonotic; which means they spread between animals and humans. The SARS outbreak in 2003 and the current 2019-nCoV outbreak, are thought to originate from the bat population of China.
To date, the new coronavirus has primarily impacted China. But it’s also spread around the world, with more than 126 current cases.
Whilst a number of people returning from China to the UK have been tested, there are no confirmed cases reported in the UK at this time. The nearest confirmed cases are in France, where three people are known to have the virus.
Worryingly, it’s now known that the virus can spread before symptoms are evident. The UK Government is advising anyone returning from an infected area (e.g. Wuhan, China) within the last 14 days, to follow certain precautions. Their advice is for people not to travel or leave the house until they’re sure they are symptom free.
Interestingly, the Director of Public Health England has gone on record with her belief that there will be symptom-free carriers in the country.
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 likely 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 will be 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
- If any of your employees are required to travel to China, be sure to follow the updated government advice. Also, as with any H&S risk assessment, consider whether the trip can be postponed or replaced by online video meetings.
- Where employees have recently returned from China, or are due to, consider if and how they can work from home until they are sure they’ve not been infected. Remember the virus can spread without symptoms being evident.
- 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.
- Care homes and other medical or care sector employers should consult the NHS guidance – see link here.
What are the HR issues?
For people managers, there’s no significant difference between coronavirus and any other infectious illnesses that can affect workers. UK businesses shouldn’t be overly concerned at this stage, as there’s no immediate question of an epidemic.
However, there’s an exception to this: the government guidance that people returning to the UK from Wuhan should remain indoors and avoid contact with others during the incubation period, even if they are symptom free.
Business trips to China
There’s no simple answer to how to deal with this as an HR team. If an employee has been visiting China on business on your behalf, you clearly bear some responsibility for the position in which they now find themselves.
The best option is to explore opportunities to work from home. If this isn’t possible, consider paid sickness absence or even paid medical suspension. Note that medical suspension is rarely used and you should take advice before embarking on it.
Needless to say, as an employer, you have a duty of care to consider postponing or cancelling any imminently planned trips to China, and Wuhan in particular.
Personal trips to China
An employee returning from a private trip to China puts you between a rock and a hard place. As an employer, you have no obligation to pay them to remain at home. On the other hand, they are prevented from coming to work, even if they are well and willing, as per government guidance. Plus, you will likely be reluctant to run the risk of exposing your workforce to the virus.
Again, there are a range of options to consider here. If working from home isn’t possible, you could treat their absence as sickness. In this circumstance, employers should exercise caution in counting the absence towards any absence management triggers or calculations.