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Coronavirus – your top ten HR questions answered

This article was originally published on 28 February and was updated on 9 ,11 and 13 March.

Coronavirus is spreading in the UK and a major epidemic is expected. The Chief Medical Officer has said the risk is still moderate.

We set out answers to the most frequently asked questions we've received from our 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, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, other areas of the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Government guidance about specified countries and travellers was withdrawn on 13 March 2020. It's now been superseded by information in COVID-19: stay at home guidance.

Any person who has been in contact with someone with the virus should follow advice on the NHS 111 online service even if they feel perfectly well.

2. What should we do if we suspect that an employee 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:

If someone becomes unwell in the workplace and has travelled to China or other affected countries, the unwell person should be removed to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people. If possible find a room or area where they can be isolated behind a closed door, such as a staff office. If it is possible to open a window, do so for ventilation.

The individual who is unwell should call NHS 111 from their mobile, or 999 if an emergency (if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk) and explain which country they have returned from in the last 14 days and outline their current symptoms.

Whilst they wait for advice from NHS 111 or an ambulance to arrive, they should remain at least 2 metres from other people. 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 a bag or pocket then throw the tissue in the bin. If they don’t have any tissues available, they should cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow.

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

New NHS guidance advises individuals who develop a new continuous cough or high temperature to self-isolate for seven days. 

If they are worried they may have the virus, advise them to use the new call NHS 111 online service (the phone line can't cope with the numbers of calls) and keep you informed.

If the individual hasn’t been in contact with anyone with the virus, hasn’t travelled to one of the ‘at risk’ countries and doesn't have a new cough or high temperature you can deal with their illness in the normal way.

3. Can we insist that an employee 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, you can send them home.

You also have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all your employees. Therefore, if an employee exhibits the symptoms of this virus, you should ask them to go home and take advice from NHS 111 online.

If the individual is tested for the virus and the result is negative, they will be advised about returning to work. 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 workplace.

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, has been told to self-isolate or is caring for someone in the household who 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 recoup our statutory sick pay costs?

Yes, but only if you employ 250 or fewer staff. The Chancellor has announced in his Budget that small employers will be able to recoup statutory sick pay costs for up to 14 days for those who have been asked to self isolate or are diagnosed with the virus.

If you don't fit that description, you'll have to meet the costs yourself.

6. Can we ask employees to provide cover for those who are ill or in quarantine?

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

You must make sure that any employees 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.

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

All employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees 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. You will need to identify anyone that is potentially at risk and decide what steps you need to take to protect them 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 employees to work from home (if their role lends itself to this), giving them different work to do so they can work from home, or from a different location, asking them to take paid leave or paying them if there is no work available for them to do. You need to adopt a consistent approach regarding paid leave/holiday.

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. So far, there has been no obvious sign that pregnant women are more likely to be seriously affected, but you'll need to take advice.

8. Do we have to shut our workplace if an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus?

Not unless you have been advised to. Your local Public Health England Health Protection Team will contact 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.

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

This advice may change if more cases are confirmed in the UK. It has been reported that the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty has indicated that one option to try and control the spread of the virus is to restrict travel which will impact on anyone commuting to work. It’s therefore sensible to make a contingency plan if you do have to close down your workplace or operate via a skeleton staff.

9. 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 publish a policy explaining:

  • What they need to do if they have, or suspect they have coronavirus
  • Working from home arrangements
  • Your sick pay policy
  • Your policy on travel, attending external meetings or events etc
  • What they need to do if they need to take emergency leave to look after their child/ren or other dependents

We have written a policy which is suitable for most workplaces. 

If you have the capacity to do so, it may be worth designating an ‘isolation room’ where an employee who feels ill can go and sit away from the rest of the company so that they can take advice on what they should do next. 

10. 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.

Need more information?

The government publishes daily updates at 2pm with the latest stats and advice.

Please speak to Helen Dyke if you'd like to discuss how we can help you or you'd like a copy of our coronavirus policy.