With the Coronavirus being described as a "serious and imminent threat" to public health, employers have an important role in helping prevent the spread of the virus.
Clear guidance should be issued to all employees. Don’t forget, it’s not just those who have recently travelled to Wuhan or Hubei Province who are at risk. Anyone who has been in contact with someone who has recently been to China could also be infected.
All employers are under a duty to ensure the health and safety of their staff, but you only have to take reasonable steps. There is currently no legal obligation to suspend non-symptomatic employees from work just because they have been to an area known to have experienced incidences of Coronavirus. However, if that employee appears to have possible symptoms, they should immediately be sent home and told to contact NHS 111.
If they are found to be unfit for work then they should be treated in line with your usual sickness absence procedures. Any of your staff who had contact with the employee should be advised to phone their GP. Bear in mind that the virus is especially risky to those who have pre-existing medical conditions.
If the GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but you are still concerned, then you could consider asking the employee to work from home in self-quarantine. If that’s not possible, because they work in a shop for instance, you could briefly suspend them on precautionary grounds. They will have the right to be paid during this suspension though, unless there is a contrary provision in their employment contract.
What about employees who were planning to travel to China? If you were sending them there on business then you should postpone the trip or replace it with Skype calls or similar. Employees who were planning a holiday in an affected area may now wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice. These requests should be granted where possible, otherwise employees might feel pressured into taking the holiday as originally planned.
Since the virus is transmitted by droplets from coughs and sneezes, employers should take some simple preventative measures such as:
- Provide disposable tissues and advise employees to follow the NHS advice of 'catch it, bin it, kill it'
- Provide covered bins so employees can carefully dispose of used tissues
- Encourage hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating.
- Provide employees with hand sanitiser, making frequent hand washing easy.
- Provide disinfectant wipes to regularly clean commonly used surfaces and devices such as computer keyboards, tablets and mobile phones
- Discourage communal sharing of snacks from bowls and packets that have been touched by others (sorry, but that probably means no passing the Percy Pigs around the office for a while.....)
If you have any concerns about this issue, do get in touch (but just by phone or email please!)
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