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Coronavirus – your education HR questions answered

New cases of coronavirus are reported daily and the virus has now spread to the UK. Currently the UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the UK from low to moderate..

We set out answers to the most frequently asked questions we've received from our education clients about the coronavirus. 

1. What restrictions have the UK government put in place for people who have travelled to/from an ‘at risk’ country? 

That depends on the country they have visited. Current government guidance recommends that if the country (or province) falls into Category 1, travellers should self-isolate, even if they don’t have any symptoms, and call NHS 111 to inform of them of their recent travel. This applies to Wuhan city and Hubei Province in China, Iran and  Daegu or Cheongdo in the Republic of Korea.

The position regarding Italy is more complicated. Current advice is that travellers who returned from areas of Northern Italy that were under containment measures (see map) between 19 February and 8 March 2020 should self-isolate for 14 days. Travellers who returned from the rest of Italy before 9 March 2020 do not need to undertake any special measures, but if they develop symptoms they should self-isolate and call NHS 111.

If the country or province falls into Category 2, travellers don’t need to undertake any special measures, but if they develop symptoms they should self-isolate and call NHS 111. This applies to Cambodia, other areas of China, Hong Kong, northern Italy not subject to containment measures, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, other areas of the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

The government publishes frequent updates and further advice is available here.

Cases have also been confirmed in Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Tenerife and Croatia, but as yet, these countries have not been added to Category 2. We are also aware of informal reports from clients that there may be other outbreaks in other European countries which are yet to be confirmed.  We therefore recommend that you regularly review the Category 1 and 2 lists. 

Any person who has been in contact with someone with the virus should call NHS 111 even if they feel perfectly well.

2. What should we do if we suspect that a member of staff or student/pupil has coronavirus? 

Symptoms of coronavirus are similar to other flu type illnesses and include a cough, high temperature and difficulty breathing. If you believe they have been in contact with someone with the virus, or they have recently returned from one of the ‘at risk’ countries mentioned above, the government advice is to:

Call NHS 111, or 999 in an emergency (if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk), and if appropriate, explain which country they have returned from in the last 14 days. People who become unwell should be advised not to go to their GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

Whilst you wait for advice from NHS 111 or an ambulance to arrive, try to find somewhere safe for the unwell person to sit which is at least 2 metres away from other people. If possible, find a room or area where they can be isolated behind a shut door, such as a staff office or meeting room. If it is possible to open a window, do so for ventilation. They should avoid touching people, surfaces and objects and be advised to cover their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they cough or sneeze and put the tissue in the bin. If no bin is available, put the tissue in a bag or pocket for disposing in a bin later. If you don’t have any tissues available, they should cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow. The room will need to be cleaned once they leave.

If they need to go to the bathroom whilst waiting for medical assistance, they should use a separate bathroom if available.

If the individual hasn’t been in contact with anyone with the virus and hasn’t travelled to one of the ‘at risk’ countries, you can deal with their illness in the normal way. 

If they are worried they may have the virus, advise them to call NHS 111 and keep you informed.

3. Can we insist that a member of staff or pupil/student suspected of having coronavirus should self-quarantine for 14 days? 

That depends on their symptoms and whether they have recently travelled from one of the affected countries. Check up to date government advice. Is the country one of those included in Category 1 (see question 1 above)? If so, you can insist that they self-isolate for the recommended period. If they attempt to return to work/school or college, you can send them home. 

You also have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all your staff (and pupils/students). Therefore, if a member of staff exhibits the symptoms of this virus, you should ask them to go home and ring NHS 111 to obtain further advice. 

If the individual is tested for the virus and the result is negative, they will be advised about returning to work/school or college. It is perfectly acceptable to ask to see a copy of this advice before they return. 

If the test is positive, you will be contacted by the local Public Health England Health Protection Team to discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them and advise on any actions or precautions you need to take to protect others in your school or college. 

We also recommend that you take health and safety advice, carry out appropriate risk assessments and contact your insurers for advice.  

4. Do we have to pay anyone who is absent because they are self-isolating or are suspected of having the virus? 

If they are sick then you should apply your usual sick pay policy. However, if they aren’t ill, but they are advised to follow government/health advice and self-isolate, you may have to pay them. We recommend that you take legal advice and check this point.

If they can work from home, you should pay them as normal.

ACAS has recently changed its  guidance which, initially said there's no legal right to pay if someone is not sick because they've been told to self isolate. It now states: 

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or a worker to self-isolate, they should receive any statutory sick pay due to them. If the employer offers contractual sick pay, it is good practice to pay this.Employers might need to be flexible if they require evidence from the employee or worker. For example someone might not be able to provide a sick note if told to self-isolate for 14 days.

The government has also said that it will change the law so that Statutory Sick Pay is paid from Day 1 if the employee has been diagnosed with coronavirus or has been told to self-isolate.

Remember, if you exclude someone from work ‘just in case’ they have the virus you will have to pay them in most circumstances. We recommend that you take advice regarding payment arrangements.

 5. Can we ask members of staff to provide cover for those who are ill or in quarantine? 

Yes, provided your staff agree or you can rely on a contractual term in their contracts of employment. You must act reasonably and find out which staff can work extra hours so that you can plan cover. 

You must make sure that any staff working additional hours (whether paid or unpaid) take proper rest breaks (including an 11 hour daily rest period) and don’t work in excess of 48 hours each week (averaged over a 17 week period) unless they have signed a Working Time Opt Out Agreement. 

6. Do we need to take special measures to protect staff that are most at risk if they are exposed to coronavirus? 

All employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff and to provide a safe place and system of work. 

Current advice is that coronavirus causes more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease. 

All employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their workers and you may therefore need to put in place measures to protect those who are most at risk – particularly if the numbers of cases in the UK increase, or you have anyone who has tested positive for the virus or is suspected of having it. This might include allowing staff to work from home (if their role can be done from home) or giving them different work to do so they can work from home. 

You also have special duties in respect of pregnant and breastfeeding workers. You must conduct a risk assessment if working conditions could involve risk to new or expectant mothers or their babies. If your assessment identifies risk, you are expected to take steps to reduce it. Ultimately, if there is no other way of alleviating the risk (such as assigning them to a different role) you may have to suspend on full pay. Previous guidance from the NHS advised that the risk of infection can be reduced if pregnant women avoid unnecessary travel and crowds. 

7. Do we have to shut our school or college if an employee or pupil is diagnosed with coronavirus? 

Not unless you have been advised to. Your local Public Health England Health Protection Team will contract you and conduct a risk assessment. They will discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them and provide advice about any actions or precautions you need to take. 

Advice on the management of pupils or students and staff will be based on this assessment. 

The Health Protection Team will also advise you about the cleaning of communal areas such as classrooms, changing rooms and toilets. 

However, this advice may change if more cases are confirmed in the UK. The Guardian reported  that chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty has indicated that one option to try and control the spread of the virus is to shut schools and colleges and restrict travel. 

8. How can we reduce the risk to our employees?

The risk level is currently identified as moderate. We recommend that you publish guidance encouraging employees to be extra-vigilant with washing their hands, using and disposing of tissues etc. and put out age appropriate notes that your pupils can understand

If you have the capacity to do so, it may be worth designating an ‘isolation room’ where an employee or pupil who feels ill can go and sit away from the rest of the school/college and privately call NHS 111. 

9. Can we prevent staff travelling abroad on holiday?

No, you can’t prevent someone travelling on holiday to areas that are considered to be high risk. However, you can advise against travel to certain areas, reiterate government guidance and ask employees to notify you if they are intending to travel to affected areas.

We also recommend that you explain what will happen if a member of staff travels to an area that is affected, such as whether they will/may need to self isolate, whether they will be paid etc in line with your policy.

10. Where do we find up to date information? 

The government has published COVID-19: Guidance for Educational Settings; and Latest Information and Advice which provides and more general information about travel and how to prevent the spread of the virus. It also has a poster you can download which explains the basic symptoms and risks.

Need more information?

We have drafted policies and staff updates for a number of our education clients worried about staff travelling abroad on holiday outside of academic terms. 

Please speak to Helen Dyke (colleges) or Jenny Arrowsmith (schools) if you'd like to discuss how we can  help you.

This article was updated on 10 March 2020.