Coronavirus: A guide for employers - part two

Coronavirus is continuing to spread around the UK and the number of cases is rapidly increasing each day.

Employers will inevitably have many concerns regarding the duties that they owe their employees and it is therefore important that employers have measures and policies in place to minimise the spread of the virus in the workplace.

Ensuring employees’ safety in the workplace
At the moment there is no official guidance to close the workplace and employers will only wish to do this as a last resort. In order to allow the workplace to continue to function and maintain productivity, employers should ensure that they have appropriate health and safety precautions in place to prevent and minimise the spread of illness in the workplace. It is important that employees are aware of the measures that the employer is taking to avoid any unnecessary concern.

As a starting point, employers should encourage staff to wash their hands regularly and ensure that tissues, soap and hand sanitiser is readily available to all employees. Employers may also wish to provide anti-bacterial wipes/sprays so that employees can continue to keep their work stations clean. A policy should also be in place to restrict hand shaking with other colleagues and clients/customers. Employers may also wish to try to limit direct contact with external parties and clients/customers whilst at work.

All employees should be made aware of the symptoms of Coronavirus and be aware of the workplace Absence Management procedure should they need to take time off or self-isolate. Managers should also be aware of the symptoms in the event that an employee attends the workplace showing symptoms and there should be a procedure in place in respect of what should happen in this circumstance.

It would also be good practice to have signs displayed in the workplace detailing what an employee should do in the event that they develop symptoms of the virus and also signs highlighting what the symptoms are.

Keeping employee records up to date
Employers should ensure that all employees’ contact details are up to date, including emergency contact details. Employers should be aware of employees who have underlying medical conditions or who are pregnant as they are more at risk of contracting the virus.

It would also be good practice to record where employees intend to travel during any upcoming annual leave, irrespective of whether it is to an affected area, in order that the employer can prepare for their return to work. Whilst an employer cannot prohibit an employee from travelling abroad, they may wish to highlight the Government advice of only travelling if it is essential and highlight any concerns. Additionally, an employer is entitled to cancel an employee’s upcoming leave provided that they give a minimum notice period of one day for each day of annual leave. However, an employer should consider what the effect of doing this may have on their relationship with the employee. It therefore may not be a suitable option for all employers.

At the moment, anyone who has recently returned from an affected area, such as mainland China or Italy, in the last 14 days, should self-isolate and avoid contact with other people, irrespective of whether they are showing symptoms. Employees returning from other areas may also need to self-isolate if they show symptoms. Anyone in either of these situations who attempt to attend the workplace should be sent home and follow the official Government guidance in an attempt to protect the health and safety of others.

What to do if an unwell employee attends the workplace
If an employee is confirmed to have the virus and they have recently been in the workplace then there is no requirement to close the workplace and you should not need to send all staff home. You may, as a precautionary measure, wish to ask members of staff who have recently had direct contact with the sick employee to self-isolate to minimise any risk. A risk assessment of the workplace should be prepared and a deep clean may be required. Employers should also be aware that under the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and UK data protection law, information relating to a person’s health is classed as ‘special category data’ and therefore, whilst employers can advise staff that someone in the workplace has Coronavirus, they should not identify the individual.

If someone begins to show symptoms of the virus (ie, they have a fever or persistent cough) whilst at work, they should be placed in an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people (ideally in a separate room from other people) and they should use the NHS 111 service either online or by telephone for further advice on what they should do.

The official guidance on managing Coronavirus is being updated daily and it is therefore important to keep up to date with relevant Government announcements regarding the virus. Employers should be vigilant and ensure that employees are aware of the ongoing situation. If you are in any doubt regarding your obligations as an Employer, please get in touch with the Blackadders Employment Team.

Fiona Knox, trainee solicitor

Fiona Knox, trainee solicitor