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Coronavirus: What should employers do in the event of a pandemic?

With the news that several firms in London are taking precautionary measures against the new COVID-19 by asking staff to work from home, employers should be thinking proactively about best practice in the event of a pandemic and the steps they may need to take now to protect the safety of their staff.

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With the news that several firms in London are taking precautionary measures against the new COVID-19 by asking staff to work from home, employers should be thinking proactively about best practice in the event of a pandemic and the steps they may need to take now to protect the safety of their staff.

What are my rights and duties as an employer in the coronavirus pandemic?

Duty of health and safety
Although it is important to prevent unauthorised absences, your primary duty in the event of a pandemic is to protect the health and safety of your employees. This means ensuring good hygiene, good communication and that your working practices don’t pose undue risks to your staff.

A good sickness absence policy will allow you to manage any employees showing symptoms of infectious illness. Usual sick leave and pay provisions will apply. The same is true for any workers who have been placed in quarantine or have not been allowed back to the UK.

Right to enforce home-working
Perhaps you have an employee who was recently on holiday in Northern Italy but isn’t showing signs of the illness. Can you nonetheless insist that they stay out of the office?

Some employers may have an express, contractual right to require an employee to stay at home. However, even where this does not exist, it’s unlikely to be a breach of duty to insist an employee stays at home – providing of course that there are legitimate, non-discriminatory grounds for concern.

Nonetheless, you should deal with it sensitively and discretely. Regardless of whether flexible working is possible, if an employee is well but is required to stay away from the office, they should be receiving their usual pay.

Right to enforce office-working
Perhaps your employees are afraid of catching coronavirus, and don’t want to come in. Can you insist that they do?

Primarily, you should listen to the concerns of your staff. There may be easy ways around this issue, for example by allowing them to work from home, or commute outside of rush hour to avoid peak times.

You could also consider arranging for staff to take unpaid leave or holiday.

If your employees unreasonably refuse to attend work, despite negligible risk, and it is not possible to give them leave, consider taking disciplinary action.

Right to close the office
Current ACAS guidance states that if someone with coronavirus comes to work, you do not necessarily have to close the office. Local Public Health will contact you to perform a risk assessment.

However, if you do choose to close the office temporarily for safety reasons, make sure plans are in place so that you can communicate effectively with staff. Unless provided for in employment contracts, you will still need to pay workers during the time the office is closed.

What steps should I be taking now?

Keep clean

  • Basic hygiene is crucial. Everyone at work should be washing their hands thoroughly with hot water and soap and/or sanitiser and using disposable tissues to catch sneezes or coughs. Put up signs or send emails to remind staff of these simple rules.
  • Increase the cleaning of the workplace – particularly phones, door handles, stairwells and lifts.
  • Provide hand sanitisers and tissues to employees, or ensure they are kept topped up in communal areas.
  • Employees may feel more comfortable wearing face masks, particularly if they work closely with the public, so consider providing staff with masks, if appropriate.

Keep informed

  • Make sure you know how to spot the symptoms of coronavirus. See for example NHS guidance here.
  • Stay up to date with government advice, particularly regarding the areas heavily affected, so as to avoid any non-essential business travel to coronavirus hotspots.
  • Ensure your remote-working structures (if you have them) are accessible and ready in case you need to use them on a large scale.

Keep in touch

  • Communication is key. Manage any ‘fear of the workplace’ by keeping employees informed of any actions you are taking to protect them and the likely level of risk. Those at a higher risk (e.g. pregnant employees or those with low immune systems) should be informed accordingly.
  • Staff should be made aware of how they will be contacted if their employer decides to take precautionary measures. This will require having up to date contact details for all staff and their emergency contacts.

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Tania Goodman

Partner - Head of Employment

tania.goodman@collyerbristow.com