Coronavirus FAQs

Posted on March 14, 2020

In view of the outbreak of coronavirus across the world and in the UK, it is important for employers to carefully consider what they can do to protect their business and their employees from virus epidemics, especially if the threat escalates.

Please note that the advice on coronavirus is being reviewed daily. rradar continue to closely monitor government updates and when legal changes happen, we will update this page.

On the 11th March 2020, the Government Budget announced measures to mitigate the Coronavirus impact on businesses, which include:

  • Business interruption loan scheme A 'temporary coronavirus business interruption loan scheme' for banks to offer loans of up to £1.2m to support small and medium-sized businesses.
  • SSP refund for Small businesses The government will meet costs for businesses with fewer than 250 employees of providing statutory sick pay to those off work 'due to coronavirus' for first 14 days.
  • Self employed sick pay Self-employed workers who are not eligible for sick pay will be able to claim contributory Employment Support Allowance. The money will be available from day one, not after a week as of now.
  • Business rates Business rates for shops, cinemas, restaurants and music venues in England with a rateable value below £51,000 suspended for a year.
  • Zero hour contracts Plans to make it quicker and easier to get benefits for those on zero hours contracts.

FAQs

What steps should I take now in response to the COVID-19?

It is strongly advised that employers introduce new safety rules at work consistent with any guidance issued by PHE that affects the workplace or employment relationships. In particular putting in place a flu pandemic or infectious diseases contingency plan that addresses business continuity in the event that the situation worsens and develops. Even if this situation does not currently affect your business, it is good practice to have contingency plans regardless.

Where you have an attendance management policy consider whether to specify that a period of absence caused by COVID-19 infection or self-isolation in accordance with PHE guidance will not be taken into account in deciding whether the thresholds at which management action is taken have been reached. This will be especially relevant in the case of a disabled employee who has a compromised immune system and/or is at higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19.

Provide tissues at each workstation and place hand sanitizers at several locations around the workplace, such as by printers or in communal areas like kitchens, canteens and toilets.

Ultimately as an employer you need to be mindful of your statutory and common law obligations to protect the health and safety of your workforce, as well as the obligation to maintain mutual trust and confidence. This is because an employee may resign and claim constructive dismissal where they consider their employer has not taken reasonable steps to ensure their safety, for example, by failing to introduce or monitor appropriate hygiene standards in the workplace or failing to prevent a person who should be self-isolating to attend work.

What do I pay someone who is off sick with coronavirus?

If an employee is off sick with coronavirus, you will need to pay them what they would usually get paid if they were off sick with anything else. This may be Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or company sick pay, if they are entitled to it.There are no waiting days if an employee is being paid SSP in relation to coronavirus.

Do I need to pay someone if they are self-isolating and they have chosen to do this themselves, without being instructed to do so by a medical professional?

This position has developed since the initial outbreak of the virus. The government has now stated that an employee or worker should receive any SSP due to them if they need to self-isolate because they have:

  • coronavirus (usually 14 days of self-isolation)
  • a high temperature or new continuous cough (usually 7 days of self-isolation)
  • been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111

You should nevertheless investigate with the employee to get a better understanding as to why they believe that they should self-isolate without medical advice. Certainly, in order to avoid any possible risk of the virus spreading to other staff in the workplace, you may be happy to accept the employees cautious approach.

Whilst the minimum pay is SSP, there is nothing wrong with an employer paying more than SSP, certainly if it is the case where contractual sick pay applies. Or it may be the case that the employee says, although they need to self-isolate, they feel well enough to do some work from home. If you are satisfied that the employee is well enough to work from home during a period of self -isolation then they should be paid their normal pay rather than SSP, however this position should be kept under constant review, as the employee's health may deteriorate. You also need to ensure that you do not put yourself in a situation where an employee argues that they felt that they had no choice but to work during a period of self-isolation.

This situation will be different though if after further investigation you do not accept the employee’s reason for self- isolating, especially where they confirm that they have no symptoms and have not been in contact with anyone who has tested positive or just returned from an ‘at risk’ country. In such instances, an employee should attend work as normal and if they choose not to do so, this could be deemed as unauthorised absence or a conduct issue depending on the contents of your disciplinary policy.

Do I need to pay someone if they are being asked to isolate themselves by a medical professional?

As stated above, this situation has developed and the government is now stating that an employee or worker should receive any SSP due to them if they need to self-isolate because they have:

  • coronavirus (usually 14 days of self-isolation)
  • a high temperature or new continuous cough (usually 7 days of self-isolation)
  • been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111

Also as at todays date (13th March 2020) new regulations have now come in to force amending who is to be covered when it comes to 'persons deemed 'incapable for work' for the purposes of sick pay entitlement.

Under the Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020, for the purposes of sick pay entitlement, someone who is isolating themselves from other people in order to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus disease will also be deemed to be 'incapable of work' and therefore entitled to SSP or Contractual sick pay depending on the policy used by employers.

They key thing is to ensure that there is open and constant communication with your employees and workers around self-isolation so that you can have a clear understanding of their health status and condition. The normal rules on 7 day self certification still apply and any thing beyond this point should be evidenced where possible by a fit note. Please bear in mind though that there may be a delay around receiving this where the employee has been told to self-isolate and can only contact their GP or NHS 111 by telephone or online..

Although an employee may have been advised to self-isolate by a medical professional, they may argue that they are well enough to work from home. If you are satisfied that they are well enough to work from home and they do so, they should be paid their normal pay. Please note though that this situation should be closely monitored, especially where the employee's health deteriorates.

Do I need to pay someone if they are in quarantine because they are sick with the virus?

Yes – but only their sick pay entitlement which will either be SSP or any contractual sick pay outlined in their contract.

Do the waiting days for SSP in cases of coronavirus apply?

No. It was announced on the 4th March 2020 that SSP will apply from day one of sickness for cases involving coronavirus. Therefore, the usual three SSP waiting days will not apply.

What do I pay someone if I send them home because I feel it is too risky for them to be in work, for example, because they are a returning traveller from a high risk area?

In these circumstances, you would need to pay the employee full pay as this would be deemed a medical suspension. If the employee becomes sick with the virus, their sickness entitlement would then apply whether this is SSP or contractual sick pay. So the employee would move from full pay to SSP or contractual sick pay. In relation to absences associated with the coronavirus the 3 day waiting period for SSP has be waived.

What if I need to cut my employees' hours down quickly, to take into account loss of business because of the virus?

You could take advantage of any lay-off or short-time working clauses in your contracts. However, if this is not possible, please get in touch.

What if an employee is refusing to come in to work out of fear of contracting the virus?

All employees who are well will be expected to attend work unless:

  • They have contracted coronavirus
  • They have been asked to self-isolate by a medical professional
  • They have decided to self-isolate due to having a high temperature or new continuous cough

If you are satisfied after further discussion with the employee, that non of the above apply and they refuse to come in to work, you should hold a discussion with the member of staff in order to understand their concerns. If those concerns appear genuine, consideration should be given as to how the staff member can be best supported (i.e. considering home working, flexible working or granting a period of annual leave or unpaid leave). You should note that:

  • There is no obligation on the employer to offer employees a period of unpaid leave in these circumstances
  • Employers can allow employees to submit annual leave, however – this can be refused if not operationally feasible
  • The disciplinary procedure can be followed if any staff member refuses to attend work, without good reason

What should I do if my staff are unable to come to work because their childcare has been disrupted or because they need to care for unwell dependants?

Section 57A Employment Rights Act 1996, gives employees the right to take time off work to help someone who depends on them (a 'dependant') where there has been an unexpected disruption to the arrangements to care for the dependant, an incident at school, or where the dependant is ill, this would therefore would apply to situations to do with coronavirus. For example, if they have children they need to look after or arrange childcare for because their school has closed due to a coronavirus outbreak or to help their child or another dependant if they are sick, or need to go into isolation or hospital because of the coronavirus.

If an employee wants to use this right they must inform their employer as soon as possible of the reasons for their absence and the length of time they anticipate they will be off for. Usually though such leave entitlement is only expected for short periods of time. There is no right to be paid for such time off but the contract of employment and/or employee handbook may state otherwise, for example the employer may decide at their own discretion to pay in such circumstances.

What should I do if my staff member is refusing to go on a business trip?

Whilst you may be reluctant as an employer to cancel important business engagements, given the governments recommendations, you must investigate such a refusal further with the employee because as an employer, you have a duty of care and should take suitable steps to ensure that employees are not required to travel to specifically restricted areas unless such travel is essential. In this day and age, it is not unreasonable to consider and agree to alternatives such as postponing the trip, conducting the engagement via phone, Skype or video link or relocating to a different meeting venue.

The World Health Organisation recommends that all businesses and organisations assess the benefits and risks relating to upcoming travel plans. In particular you will need to consider whether the employee ‘refusing’ is an employee that may be at higher risk of serious illness to areas where the virus is spreading, for example, are they over the age of 60, do they have an underlying medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to contracting the virus? Alternatively, do they have a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 which means that they have a compromised immune system? If so, you may have a legal duty in any event to make reasonable adjustments to the employee’s working arrangements.

If after further investigation and risk assessment, you find there is no risk and do not believe that the employee’s refusal is genuine or reasonable, you may deem this to be a conduct issue and wish to take steps in line with your disciplinary policy.

Will I need to close my workplace if a member of staff has or is suspected of having coronavirus?

Having read the Public Health England (PHE) guidance, the workplace will not necessarily have to close, it will be for an employer to contact their local PHE Health Protection Team to:

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

A risk assessment of each setting will be undertaken by the Health Protection Team with the lead responsible person. Advice on the management of staff and members of the public will be based on this assessment.

The Health Protection Team will also be in contact with the case directly to advise on isolation and identifying other contacts and will be in touch with any contacts of the case to provide them with appropriate advice. Advice on cleaning of communal areas such as offices or toilets will also be given by the Health Protection Team.

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This article was written by rradar and we've shared it with their permission.

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