Coronavirus – The latest guidance for employers
Updated as of 25 March 2020
In response to the surge in cases of coronavirus in the UK, and an estimation that up to a fifth of UK workers could be off sick at the peak of an epidemic, below we address the legal challenges, obligations and latest guidance for employers.
Duty of Care
It is an employer’s duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health, safety and welfare of its employees and other people who might be affected by its business (including customers, suppliers and visitors). An employer must balance the obligation to ensure a safe working environment with other legal obligations towards employees including anti-discrimination legislation, privacy rights and contractual obligations.
An employer should implement practices and procedures to minimise the risk of staff (and others) contracting diseases at work and how to deal with infections if contracted. The top tips set out below cover some of the essential actions required to ensure a safe working environment.
Employers should monitor complaints, grievances and conversations in the workplace which could indicate discriminatory behaviour towards employees, customers or suppliers of a different ethnic origin. Managers should be trained accordingly. There may be instances of employees requesting changes to their working practices, such as home working or flexible working hours to avoid rush hour. Employers should consider how to deal with requests from those who are pregnant or potentially more susceptible to illness as a failure to do so could be discriminatory. There may also be instances where managers must exercise discretion over sickness absences and periods of leave, and the extent to which such absences are paid or unpaid. Such decisions make businesses vulnerable to discrimination claims.
Pandemics provide unique risks and challenges which often supersede the usual risk management strategies. There are short term and long term steps which business should take to mitigate any risk. Our short term tips can be found below. See also our separate frequently asked questions on the coronavirus blog.
From a long-term perspective, businesses should consider implementing a flu pandemic or infectious diseases contingency plan that addresses business continuity in the event that the situation worsens. Specific employment risks, including the duty to protect health and safety of employees, absenteeism, quarantine, self-isolation and suspension, can be covered in detail. It may also be appropriate to consider the potential need to cut costs by reducing staff levels, temporarily or permanently, in the event trading is significantly impacted by a pandemic. Options may include asking people to take unpaid leave or sabbaticals, part time working, temporary reductions in pay, lay-offs and redundancies.
The plan should also cover supply chain and commercial risks – specifically the effect of force majeure clauses and the possibility of frustration of contracts in the event of a pandemic crisis.
- Employers should issue clear guidance to employees and be regularly communicating referring to the latest governmental guidelines.
- Provide advice for self-isolation at home, and if possible designate an ‘isolation room’ at work where employees can go if they feel ill and need to call ‘111’.
- Carry out a risk assessment and update employees’ emergency contact details.
- Ensure there are clean facilities to wash hands with soap and hot water and provide easy-to-access hand sanitisers and tissues for staff.
- Ensure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes for example sickness reporting and sick pay and what to do in the event that someone in the workplace develops the virus.
- Consider whether business travel to high risk areas is advisable. Are zoom or skype meetings more appropriate?
- Educate staff without causing panic e.g. display posters.
- Plan in case you need to close temporarily. For example, make sure staff have a way to communicate with the employer and other people they work with.
- Prepare flexible working arrangements by making sure there is a home working policy in place. Do key personnel have work laptops? Can workers be sent home to work as a pre-emptive measure?
- Consider training staff in areas of the business which are key to its continued running.
For more specific advice about how to handle certain scenarios please see our FAQ blog, or feel free to get in touch with a member of our employment team.
For more guidance, and further information, visit our Coronavirus hub.