As coronavirus spreads more widely, all employers should take proactive steps to help reduce the risks of exposure to their staff and prevent the virus from spreading.
Clear guidance, eg staff emails or memos updating and directing staff to the Government’s latest guidance, should be issued to staff and regularly updated so that staff are kept informed an understand the steps being taken to reduce risk. Practical steps can be taken to minimise the spread of infection, including office cleaning and increasing hygiene measures in the workplace as a first line of defence.
Employers should draw up an action plan of who to contact and how to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus at work. The steps to be taken should be communicated to staff so that everyone is aware of the plan. If it is determined that the workplace needs to close, can you manage the business remotely? How will you get in touch with staff and customers? These factors need to be considered and planned for now.
Companies will need to assess business travel arrangements and whether such travel is essential. The latest guidance from Public Health England should be considered before business travel is authorised and guidance on self-isolation should be highlighted to staff and followed in all circumstances. As at today, the guidance remains that self-isolation should be for fourteen days. Assuming employees are fit to work then wherever possible they should work remotely from home during this time. Companies should adopt a flexible approach and facilitate measures to reduce the risk of an employee attending work and spreading the virus to other members of staff.
Acas guidance suggests that if an employee who cannot work from home is required to self-isolate, or is restricted from travelling to work, their absence is treated as sick leave and paid accordingly to reduce the risk of the employee attending work and spreading the virus. This approach assumes that the employer will be paying full pay during sick leave and is therefore an effective measure. If an employee is unwell then the usual sickness absence rules will of course apply.
Some employers have already experienced a downturn in work available because of coronavirus. There may be a reduction in available work for staff and employers will need to consider how to address that. It may be possible to lay off (provide no work and no pay) or provide employees with short-time working (less work and less pay) in the short term. Whether an employer will be able to impose such measures will depend on whether there is a contractual right (either express or implied) to do so: otherwise, the employee’s normal payment terms should be applied.
Some employers may consider requiring workers to take annual leave during workplace closures. This is really only possible where an employer has advance notice of a closure. It is possible to require a worker to take annual leave either over a particular period (eg Easter shut down) or on particular days. Notice must be at least twice the length of the period of leave that the worker is required to take. For example, if you require the worker to take two weeks’ leave, you must give at least four weeks’ notice - so this will only be a consideration for temporary workplace closures where there is a downturn in work as opposed to an emergency closure for an outbreak of coronavirus.
It is essential to keep informed of official guidance as the situation is fluid and guidance may change. You can view the latest guidance here. The UK Government has also released its action plan, which can be viewed here.