18th February 2020
The current outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus has seen the epicentre city of Wuhan in China tighten lock downs in a bid to contain the deadly virus from spreading further as the death toll is now said to be over 1,800.
A number of cases have been confirmed in Asian countries such as Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Malysia, with a small number of cases confirmed in Australia, the USA and throughout Europe.
With 9 patients testing positive for the virus currently in the UK, it is not time to panic, but it would be sensible for companies to start to think about what contingency or disaster recovery plans they have in place for outbreaks of viral diseases.
Since the outbreak large organisations such as Apple, Amazon and Google have imposed travel restrictions to and from China. International companies or firms that employee staff who frequently travel for work, may want to consider their risk.
At this point, there are a few things that employers should consider making sure their workforce are aware and cautious about the coronavirus. Depending on the industry you work in, some workplaces may be more at risk of infection spreading that others. For example, international businesses, those working in healthcare or in workplaces with high volumes of people, should be taking larger steps to protect their staff and the business.
#1 Educate Your Workforce
Make sure that your employees are aware of the outbreak, can identify the symptoms and that they know what to do if they have any concerns. Share public health information via email or put information on your staff notice boards.
#2 Promote Good Hygiene
Regular hand washing can slow down epidemics. Ensure that you provide hand sanitiser gels and handwash in your workplace washrooms. It may also be a good idea to invest in some medical strength hand sanitiser to keep at entrances to your building, on reception desks, print stations and kitchens to encourage regular hand washing in high-traffic areas. Ensure that your cleaners are wiping down door handles, taps and toilet flushes with antibacterial cleaning products.
#3 Sickness / Working From Home
Ensure that you promote a workplace where people who are sick do not feel pressured to come into the workplace. If staff members have cold/flu like symptoms, it is best for them to stay at home to avoid illness being spread throughout the office. Check that your sickness absence and remote working policies are up to date.
#4 Be Supportive
As employers you not only have a duty of care to ensure you take reasonable steps to ensure health and safety, but also the well-being of your people. If the outbreak in the UK becomes more serious, people are likely to feel anxious. Be supportive of staff struggling with anxiety or those who have underlying health or immune problems.
#5 Check on your Key Suppliers, Clients and Providers
It is a sensible idea to check that your business is not heavily reliant on suppliers, clients or services from areas affected by the virus. For example, a travel ban from China could affect businesses who trade to and from as the linchpin of their operation.
#6 Disaster Recovery Plan
Consider making a plan of action should your workplace be affected by the virus. There are a number of questions to ask yourselves, such as What would happen if key people within your business were unable to work? What remote working policies do you have in place if your staff are best suited to work from home? What would happen if suppliers or clients your business is dependent on are out of action?
If you have an employee who has tested positive for coronavirus it is important to act fast and carry out a risk assessment. Ensure that other workers are tested along with any clients, customers or members of the public that they may have had contact with.
Obviously, this employee will be in quarantine and should remain off work without any face-to-face contact with other members of staff.
It is vital that employees affected by coronavirus or those who are suspected to be at risk are treated fairly and with respect. They should not be subject to discrimination or victimisation and will remain under the protection of employment law.
Entitlement to sick pay will be determined in an individual’s employment contract. In light of the serious risk of infection with coronavirus you may wish to treat cases on an individual basis where employees do not qualify for sick pay to avoid employees trying to come into work whilst they are sick.
If you have asked employees not to come into work (either because they have returned from China or are at risk) should be paid their normal salary or working hours if they have been requested not to come into work by the employer.
When there is a world disaster such as a virus outbreak, you are likely to get some members of your workforce that use it as an opportunity not to come into work. There may be some cases where people are genuinely concerned about travelling, for example they may be pregnant, have immune issues or may use on public transport and are worried about contracting the disease. But you may experience others who try to take advantage of the situation.
If or when you come across these cases it is important to assess the risk for each individual case. Employers need to be mindful of getting themselves into an employment dispute for disciplining or dismissing staff for not attending work and ensure that they have acted reasonably.
Unfortunately, there have been incidents where British Chinese have been subjected to racial abuse following the outbreak which originated from Wuhan in China.
Employers need to ensure they take all reasonable steps to prevent employees behaving in a way that could offend or victimise other members of staff. What some may look at as ‘office banter’ could cause deep offence or upset to others.
Employers should also be wary of requesting that certain members of staff stay away from the office or are not involved in certain projects based on their race. If they have recently traveled from China, then there is likely to be a genuine risk, but it would not be reasonable otherwise.
A lot of uncertainty still remains about the characteristics, risks and transmission of this strain of coronavirus, so it is important for business owners, employers and those responsible for people in the workplace to keep up to date on the news and the official government or NHS recommendations.
As the outbreak develops, there may be other issues that come to light that employers will need to react quickly too.
If you have concerns about protecting your workforce or would like your policies reviewed, then please get in touch with our Employment Law Team who will be happy to help.
Call us on 01256 844888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively you can speak to our online chat assistant, who is available 24/7 on our website.
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The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.
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