We have been asked by many clients in recent days to respond to specific queries relating to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. We use the term “pandemic” because the World Health Organisation has now classified it as such. The situation is fast moving so we have found the need to update the advice as we go along. What is clear is that every workplace is likely to be affected by the measures that have to be taken.
What does Acas suggest?
Acas has published its latest guidance which is helpful and can be found here: https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus. Employers may wish to share this with their staff, particularly the practical measures to avoid the spread of the virus, such as basic hygiene precautions. This should be viewed as part of an employer’s emergency health and safety processes.
Who is entitled to sick pay?
If an employee is advised by their GP or NHS111 to self-isolate, they will be entitled to statutory sick pay. Whether you give them company sick pay if your company pays contractual sick pay, it is really down to you as the employer, but it is sensible to do so to minimise the risk of an unwell employee coming into work to avoid losing out on pay. The Government has recently announced that SSP will be paid from day one of absence instead of day 4 while the current level of threat from the Covid19 outbreak is ongoing.
What if you require an employee to self-isolate?
If you as the employer require an employee to self-isolate and not attend work, the guidance is that you should pay them normal salary as it is not technically classed as sickness absence. It should also not count against their sickness record. You may wish to require an employee to self-isolate if they have returned from a country where there is a particularly high number of cases, such as Italy, or if they are reporting symptoms such as a high temperature, a cough and/or shortness of breath.
What if the employee has care responsibilities?
If an employee has to look after a relative or if schools/nurseries are closed and the employee cannot find alternative childcare, it should be treated as part of the statutory right to time off to care for a dependent in an emergency. This is generally unpaid, but it is down to you as an employer whether you wish to offer an employee some salary in such circumstances. You will need to treat employees even-handedly.
What if we believe an employee just wants time off?
There is perhaps a risk that some employees might seek to use the situation as an excuse to get time off work. If an employee asks not to come into work because of a fear of contracting Covid19, you should consider whether their concerns are genuine, consider the degree of risk to the employee and their colleagues, and if you intend to refuse the request, seek to reassure them that sufficient safety measures are in place.
Employees in high risk categories
One issue that may arise is that employees in particularly high risk categories (such as those with underlying health conditions) or those in an age group that is more likely to suffer severe symptoms (such as 70+) may ask to work from home or take time off. You will need to assess a request from an employee with underlying health issues, such as somebody who is severely asthmatic, as part of your duty to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee. You will need to consider on a case by case basis what reasonable adjustments would constitute and whether they are viable. For example, somebody in an office based job might find it a lot easier to work from home than somebody in a manual job.
Do we need to close down our workplace?
Closing down a business for a period of time should be a last resort and there is currently not any guidance suggesting this is a proportionate measure. However, exploring options of working from home and limiting non-essential meetings would appear to be sensible precautions.
How long is this likely to last?
Unfortunately, none of us know how long the situation will last or how widespread the virus will become, so in that sense we are all very much in unchartered territory.