Coronavirus: How employers can prepare

By Julian Cox, Head of Employment at iLaw

As the transmission of this latest virulent strain of Coronavirus grows daily, employers are beginning to grow concerned about its impact on their businesses and organisations.

The likes of Google and Amazon have already restricted work travel to the worst affected regions of China, such as Hubei, while some airlines, such as Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific have cut the working hours of staff to reflect the shrinking demand for travel to China.

As the number of deaths worldwide surpasses the previous SARs pandemic more than a decade ago and the number of infected people in the UK grows employers may need to consider what steps they can reasonably take to ensure that staff have a safe and healthy environment to work in.

Identifying the Coronavirus

This time of year, is always a hotbed for illnesses be it the common cold or a more serious flu, so how can employers identify someone who is potentially affected by Coronavirus?

The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV or “Coronavirus”) has flu-like symptoms such as a fever and a cough, which can develop into severe pneumonia causing breathing difficulties that can, in the most serious cases, result in organ failure and death.

The most at-risk group are those with pre-existing illnesses, weakened immune systems, the elderly and those with long-term conditions, such as diabetes and cancer.

Many of the symptoms are similar to those of a typical cold and a person can be infectious before these symptoms become obvious.

At the moment, the Government is very much focused on those who have visited mainland China, in particular Wuhan and the Hubei region, or those who have been in contact with people from this area.

Business Travel 

The Coronavirus has spread around the world at a rapid rate, but the majority of cases and most deaths have occurred in Wuhan, which is why the city is currently under strict quarantine conditions.

Currently, the UK Government has advised against all but essential travel to mainland China and all travel to Hubei Province.

If a person travels against that advice they not only risk invalidating travel insurance policies, but they may also find themselves facing stricter checks on their return and a possible self-imposed quarantine or an officially enforced quarantine.

For the safety of your employees, it may be sensible to consider whether existing plans to travel overseas to at-risk areas can be postponed or cancelled or, if they are essential, whether they can be conducted via video conferencing.

Employees returning from at-risk areas are advised to remain indoors and avoid contact with others for 14 days after leaving the area.

Should they show any symptoms of the Coronavirus, it is important that they contact a GP and make it clear that they are returning from China or have been in contact with a person from an at-risk region.

Employers must remain in frequent communication with affected staff members to ensure they take all necessary precautions to keep themselves safe.

If you are concerned that they could pose a risk to your workforce it may be sensible to suggest that they work from home for a minimum of 14 days, to ensure that they are not infectious.

Protecting your workplace

The workplace is often a breeding ground for viruses and it is not uncommon for a large proportion of a workforce to come down with a similar illness all at the same time.

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees and so you should ensure that excellent hygiene standards are enforced across the business.

This includes, but is not restricted to:

  • Regular hand washing
  • The distribution and use of alcohol sanitising products
  • Use of signage to encourage staff to remain hygienic
  • Regular cleaning of the work environment
  • Free private health screening.

Those most at risk are frontline carers, such as doctors, nurses, teachers and care workers, but all employers must take the risk seriously, regardless of the sector they operate within, and properly protect its workforce.

It is also advised that you as an employer:

  • Keep up to date with and follow public health agency advice
  • Adapt business plans to reflect changes to your workforce should the UK become adversely affected
  • Communicate any change of plans to your workforce
  • Consider remote working options
  • Consider using customer self-serve options, such as online services, to reduce face-to-face interactions.

Coronavirus affected business

Having looked at some of the preventative measures that a business can put in place, what happens if someone in your organisation contracts Coronavirus?

The first and most important step is to follow your current sickness absence policy. This should cover the standards of attendance and obligations of staff members that must be met.

As a precaution, it may be worth reviewing this policy now and sharing it with the appropriate people within your business or organisation.

You should communicate to employees the need for them to report any symptoms they have that are consistent with Coronavirus to their doctor and make a note of any colleagues they may have been in close contact with before the symptoms emerged.

Where a person is displaying symptoms and a doctor has requested Coronavirus testing or signed them off as not fit to work, it may be a sensible step to briefly suspend them with pay on precautionary grounds.

This step should only be taken in line with your policies and must be applied consistently for all members of staff to avoid any claims on the grounds of discrimination or constructive unfair dismissal.

Protecting the health of your entire workforce and the interests of your company must not be underestimated and in most cases, employees will likely understand the steps that you need to take.

While there is certainly a growing fear over Coronavirus it should be treated the same as any other infectious illness, such as the flu.

Future considerations

If the virus itself isn’t concerning enough, there are now growing fears that actions by the Chinese Government to prevent the spread of the virus by quarantining entire regions could lead to a significant decline in world economic fortunes.

In particular, the supply of components to other businesses around the world may lead to the failure of companies and a decline in financial markets.

Many remember the difficult times the world faced in 2008 following the recession and a similar slowdown following the SARs crisis in 2002 – 2003.

During these uncertain times, employers must consider their employment costs ahead of this forecasted slowdown and refresh their knowledge of redundancy practices in case the worse should happen.

Next steps 

Considering the potential impact that this virus may have on the UK it is strongly advised that employers continue to carefully monitor the situation and seek professional assistance to review their current employment policies and procedures.

To find out how the employment team at iLaw can help, please contact us.