Coronavirus: the basics of workplace management

By Catherine Kerr, Partner and Head of Employment


Coronavirus was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation last month and it has been sweeping across our headlines ever since. As the virus continues to spread around the world, its potential threat to UK organisations is continuing to become more dominant.

After being contacted by a number of my clients this week, looking for advice on dealing with the virus in their own workplaces, I thought it would be helpful to offer employers some guidance on the growing potential issue of coronavirus in the workplace.

Q: “As an employer, how can I reduce the risk to my employees?”

A: The UK Chief Medical Officers have now raised the risk to the public from low to moderate although the NHS maintains that risk to individuals remains low. We understand that the symptoms of coronavirus are a cough; a high temperature and shortness of breath so it’s wise for managers and supervisors to at least be alert to these symptoms.

Whilst the risk level of contracting coronavirus is currently identified as moderate, I believe it is sensible for employers to take steps to encourage employees to be extra-vigilant when it comes to personal hygiene, such as, washing their hands (particularly after sneezing or coughing) and disposing of tissues etc. Simple and practical measures like asking employees to clean their computer screens, keyboards and telephones with an antibacterial cleaner and placing antibacterial hand sanitiser around the workplace can help. Also, make sure all emergency contact information for your staff are up-to-date.

If you have the capacity to do so, it may also be worth designating an ‘isolation room’ where an employee who feels ill can go and sit away from the rest of the team and privately call ‘111’ before taking any further necessary action.

Employers may also wish to canvass staff to assess whether any of them have travelled to high risk countries – such as China or Northern Italy – or know anyone who also might have travelled. Although be careful not to single anyone out because of their race or ethnicity to avoid potential claims under the Equality Act.

The Government’s website is updated regularly with information regarding coronavirus around the world. This will help both employer and employee to assess the question of whether or not self-isolation is a reasonable measure to take.

Medical experts are also advising people to look after themselves and boost their immune system as much as possible during this outbreak. Employers have an opportunity here to lead from the front and urge staff to be more healthy by encouraging them to eat more fruit and vegetables at lunch time; take a multi-vitamin or go for a walk during break times.

Q: “If my employee is not sick but is in quarantine or self-isolation, do I have to pay them sick pay?”

A: There is no legal obligation on an employer to pay sick pay to an employee in self-isolation. This is because sick pay only applies when an employee is actually sick – but it would be good practice.

Otherwise you run the risk of your employees coming into work and potentially spreading the virus to the rest of the workforce. In these circumstances, an employee is acting in the interests of the business. If an employer chooses not to pay the employee sick pay, it would not be entirely unreasonable for the employee to argue that the employer may have breached trust and confidence in the employment relationship. It can also be incredibly damaging for staff morale if an employee is seen to be punished for trying to do the right thing.

On Wednesday this week (26th February), health Secretary Matt Hancock, said that staff who are asked to self-isolate are entitled to take sick leave, however it’s up to you as an employer to manage this.

You might want to come to an arrangement with your staff that they can work from home if they’re feeling unwell, and they will be paid as normal. However, if your business requires your staff to be present at the workplace, such as a supermarket, employers are entitled to send home their staff without any obligation to pay.

Your employees can also request time off as holiday or unpaid leave but there is no obligation on employers to agree to this.

Q: “One of my employees has contracted the virus and is off sick. What do I need to pay them?”

A: What you pay for sick pay is down to each individual employer and should be clearly set out in your contracts of employment. Your usual rules relating to sick pay – whether that is statutory sick pay or company sick pay – should apply.

Don’t forget, we are not talking about long-term sickness absence here. The recommended isolation/quarantine period is only 14 days. Practically speaking, this means an employee can self-certify their sickness absence for the first seven days but they would need a statement of fitness to work from their GP for the remaining period of absence.

Albeit, the fit note may have to be issued by the GP retrospectively if the employee is not allowed to visit their GP’s surgery during the isolation period. The requirement to be signed off by their GP for the second week of isolation should hopefully deter employees from trying to use the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to get extra time off work.

Q: “One of my employee’s children has been sent home from school to self-isolate. What do I do?”

A: Employees are well within their right to ask for emergency time off for dependants. Although you might be happy for them to take some time off to stay with their children, you would be under no obligation to pay them unless your time off for dependants policy states otherwise.

Q: “What if someone with coronavirus comes into work, do we have to close?”

A: Not necessarily. The local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team will get in contact with the employer to:

  • discuss the case;
  • identify people who have been in contact with the affected person;
  • carry out a risk assessment; and
  • advise on any actions or precautions to take.

Experts in infectious diseases in the UK are reassuring people not to be alarmed and whilst UK employers do not have to panic, it is sensible to be prepared.

If you’re looking for further advice on how to tackle employment questions on the coronavirus or other issues, please contact me directly on catherine.kerr@primaslaw.co.uk.

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