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Note - this information is being continually checked and updated.

The coronavirus is a disease that causes flu-like symptoms and, potentially, leads to serious illness and death. It first appeared in December 2019 in Wuhan, which is within the Hubei province, China. Since then, it has spread to countries across the globe, including the UK.

This situation is quickly evolving. There are a number of risks posed by the virus that employers will need to be aware of and it is important to remember that employers have a duty of care towards their employees. To this end, they must take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce.

For a selection of letters and policies that organisations can use as a result of the outbreak, please refer to our model documents section on the coronavirus.

 

UK lockdown

On Monday 23 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK is to be placed in lockdown for at least three weeks.

Available on the government website, guidance instructs that individuals are now encouraged not to leave their home unless in the following four circumstances:

  • shopping for basic necessities (food and medical supplies)
  • one form of exercise a day
  • any medical need
  • travelling to and from essential work.

Certain businesses have also been told that they must close. Although a full list is available on the government website, this includes the following:

  • all non-essential retail stores
  • libraries and community centres
  • communal places within parks
  • places of worship
  • places of leisure including boarding houses for commercial/leisure use, aside from permanent residents and key worker buildings.

Organisations not on this list can remain open for now, however guidance remains that all staff should be permitted to work from home if this is a possibility.

Furlough and the job retention scheme

On Friday 20 March, the government announced its plans for financial assistance to help organisations retain employees for an extended period of time, despite offering no work, and avoid lay-offs. Organisations who do this will be able to obtain a grant from the Government to cover 80 per cent of furloughed employees’ wages, to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month.

It is called the Job Retention Scheme and more information can be found in our article

We also provide a model letter to use to inform employees of the situation and their entitlements, which can be found here.

School closures across the UK

On 18 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that schools across the UK are to close 'until further notice' from the end of the day on Friday 20 March. This instruction includes schools that may have already closed leading up to this date. Schools in Northern Ireland closed to pupils on 18 March.

This instruction extends to private schools, further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and early-years care providers.

Some schools will be expected to remain open to provide care for children of key workers needed to tackle the spread of the coronavirus. These include NHS staff, emergency services workers and delivery drivers.

20 March 2020 update - A full list is available on the government website and can be found at this link.

The result is that a large number of working parents may need to take time away from work as time off for dependants. For more information on this right, please refer to our in depth employment law resource.

For letters that can be used for time off for dependants, please refer to our model documents and policies on the coronavirus.

All individuals with flu-like symptoms should self-isolate

Anyone with mild symptoms of the flu need to self-isolate at home for a period of seven days after their symptoms started to show.

Anyone who lives in the same household with someone who displays these symptoms needs to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. If they start to show symptoms during this time, they should self-isolate for seven days even if this will last longer than the 14 days overall. 

The symptoms as outlined on the NHS 111 website are as follows:

  • A new continuous cough and/or
  • A high temperature  

Anyone off as a result of the above is entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP), subject to the usual qualifying conditions. For more information on statutory sick pay, please refer to our employment law section

People do not need to call NHS 111 to go into self-isolation, unless their symptoms worsen after seven days.

Government has released coronavirus action plan

On 3 March 2020, the UK government released its action plan for tackling the outbreak of Covid-19 and the spread of the coronavirus.

Essentially, it outlines four stages:

  • Contain: detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible
  • Delay: slow the spread in this country, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season
  • Research: better understand the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population; innovate responses including diagnostics, drugs and vaccines; use the evidence to inform the development of the most effective models of care
  • Mitigate: provide the best care possible for people who become ill, support hospitals to maintain essential services and ensure ongoing support for people ill in the community to minimise the overall impact of the disease on society, public services and on the economy.

As part of the announcement, Boris Johnson reassured that the UK is ‘well prepared’ for a potential outbreak and is still in the early stages of containment.

However, he did agree it was ‘likely’ that the virus will spread in the coming weeks and that 'everyone is susceptible' of catching it.

In a ‘stretching scenario’, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.

It is also possible that an outbreak or pandemic of Covid-19 could also come in multiple waves.

Areas for organisations to be aware of in the event of an outbreak are the following:

  • An increased number of schools could potentially be closed to minimise spread, which will likely result in a large number of requests for Time off for Dependants
  • Organisations may be encouraged to allow a greater number of staff to work from home
  • Reduction of large-scale gatherings could be implemented
  • Hospital worker shifts could be altered and leavers or retirees could be called ‘back to duty’

Going forward, it is possible that more serious steps will be taken and emergency legislation passed. For now, the government is continuing to issue the advice it was providing before. People should wash hands with soap regularly and check Foreign Office advice before travelling abroad. If they return from affected countries, they should follow existing advice on self-isolation.

Statutory sick pay to be payable from day one for coronavirus

The government announced on 4 March 2020 that emergency legislation would be introduced for the payment of statutory sick pay (SSP) to employees with the coronavirus. They will be entitled to receive SSP from day one, not day four, of their illness.

It is yet to be confirmed when this will come into force.

2020 Budget and the coronavirus

On 11 March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined plans to tackle the coronavirus as part of the 2020 budget. These were as follows:

  • Statutory sick pay will be available to anyone advised to self-isolate. They will be able to get a sick note through 111.
  • The cost of a business having to have someone off work for up to 14 days will be refunded.
  • £2bn will be allocated to cover firms that lose out because staff are off sick. This will apply to firms that employ fewer than 250 staff.

The World Health Organisation explains that coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

This particular episode has been named ‘COVID-19'. It first appeared in December 2019 in Wuhan, which is within the Hubei province, China. A seafood market has been identified as the possible source of the virus.

The virus has now spread worldwide and the UK government has raised the risk posed by it to high.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Some people will suffer from mild illness and recover easily whilst in other cases, infection can progress to pneumonia. Reports suggest that the elderly, those with weakened immune systems, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease are the most susceptible to serious illness and death. 

Symptoms can appear in as few as two days after infection or as long as 14 days. This means that, for individuals who may have been exposed to the virus, they may not even realise they have the disease until they have been back for two weeks.

The virus is most likely to spread from person to person through:

  • direct contact with a person while they are infectious;
  • contact with droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes; or
  • touching objects or surfaces (such as drinking mugs or desks) that were contaminated by droplets from secretions coughed or sneezed from an infected person with a confirmed infection, and then touching your mouth or face.

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees which includes not exposing them to unnecessary risk. In this case, that may include not putting them in a position in which they could become infected by the virus without taking all reasonable precautions.

This duty of care, where Coronavirus is concerned, may differ depending on an employee’s specific circumstances, for example, if they are older or they have underlying conditions.

It’s important to remember that  employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, employers  also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives the company offers and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is currently advising against all essential travel outside of the UK from 17 March 2020 for a period of 30 days. 

Employers should consider alternatives which may include postponing a business trip until the risk of infection no longer exists, or carrying out meetings via Skype or video conferencing, where possible.

Employees may be reluctant to go to any country where there have been cases of the virus. Whether or not employers take this as a valid reason not to travel is up to them but it is worth remembering that there have been confirmed cases in the UK and therefore travelling to another country where there have been cases arguably exposes the employee to no more risk than being in the UK.

If travel is deemed necessary then the employer should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk, with controls identified and implemented according to the nature and severity of the risk. Controls should be identified through a travel risk assessment and travellers themselves should be involved in the process.

Some employees may have plans to travel to China, or other affected areas, on annual leave. Provided their flights etc have not been cancelled and no other airport restrictions apply meaning they can still travel, employers may have concerns over the risk the individual poses to picking up the virus and potentially passing it on in the workplace.

Ultimately, employers can’t restrict what their employees do in their spare time and whether they travel or not is their decision. Whilst employers can cancel annual leave that has already been requested and authorised, this may not be good for employee relations.

That being said, there are several areas across the world to where the government has specifically advised against all but essential travel. It is therefore highly advisable for employers to remind their workforce that, under the Health and Safety at Work Act they also have a duty of care towards themselves and others whilst at work and, as such, should strongly consider the risks associated with travelling to these places. They should also be reminded of the latest government guidance surrounding self-isolation; it may be that they are setting themselves up to miss out on at least two weeks' of pay.

Please note - the government's advice on self-isolation, released on 13 March 2020 replaces it's previous advice on individuals returning from affected areas. See 'self-isolation' below. 
 
This advice is under constant review and is subject to change. You can keep up to date on developments here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-information-for-the-public

Where the employer has concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (particularly if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.

Where the employer chooses to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives them a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).

The employer may also wish to explore alternatives, such as permitting the employee to work from home if possible.

Please note - the government's advice on self-isolation, released on 13 March 2020 outlines when individuals should be self-isolating. See 'self-isolation' below. 

If an employee is worried about catching the virus and so refuses to attend work, Acas suggests listening to the employee’s concerns and offering reassurance. An employer's response to this will depend on the actual risk of catching the virus, will be different for every employer and will depend on specific circumstances including whether anyone in the workforce has already been diagnosed or there is another real risk of exposure. Employers may decide to offer a period of paid annual leave or unpaid leave, or allow the employee to work from home where this is feasible. Responses should be reasonable to the specific situation.

Where the employer has concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (particularly if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.

Where the employer chooses to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives them a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely). This will not be medical suspension under the statutory scheme, which would attract medical suspension pay, as this has a narrow definition which does not cover this type of situation.

The employer may also wish to explore alternatives, such as permitting the employee to work from home if possible.

New government guidance, which supersedes previous guidance on self-isolation and returning travellers and is available on the government website, outlines the following takes effect from 13 March 2020:

  • anyone with a high temperature/fever and/or a continuous cough should self-isolate at home for a period of seven days after the onset of their symptoms
  • this applies even to individuals who have not been into contact with anyone known to have contracted the coronavirus, or have not been to any affected area.

Anyone who lives in the household of an individual showing these symptoms should self-isolate for a period of 14 days. If they start to show symptoms during this time, they should self-isolate for seven days at a minimum even if this takes them beyond the initial 14-day period. 

All individuals who are advised to self-isolate in these situations are entitled to be paid statutory sick pay for their period of time away. 

This period applies up until the end of seven days following the initial onset of their symptoms. 

During this time away, individuals should not contact NHS 111 unless they feel they need hospital care. If, after seven days the symptoms are getting worse, they should also contact NHS 111. 

Also during this time, the employee may feel well enough to work - not all those who self-isolate are going to have the coronavirus. If this is the case, and if possible, employers may consider them working from home until the individual feels unable to do so. 

Please refer to our 'how to' guide on homeworking for specific guidance on homeworking arrangements.  

Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their national origin. Placing extra obligations on individuals (more robust hygiene methods, for example) just because they are from China places employers at risk of a claim of race discrimination. Extra hygiene measures, if implemented, should be required of all employees. 

Employers should be alert to ‘banter’, or more serious instances of harassment, between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity and ensure that their zero tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.

Some employers may decide to put in place a plan to cover a situation where their business temporarily closes down due to exposure/potential exposure to the virus. Employees who are ready and willing to work but are not provided with work (as would be the case with a temporary closure) can be placed on lay off. Lay off must be with full pay unless there is a provision within the contract for lay off without pay (subject to the payment of statutory guarantee pay for employees with a least one month’s service at the time of lay off). If there is no contractual provision, employers can attempt to agree with employees a period of unpaid lay off.

The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are: 

  • frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
  • when coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
  • avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough.
  • if you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider.

On 18 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that schools across the UK are to close 'until further notice' from the end of the day on Friday 20 March. This instruction includes schools that may have already closed leading up to this date. Schools in Northern Ireland closed to pupils on 18 March.

This instruction extends to private schools, further education colleges, sixth-form colleges and early-years care providers.

Some schools will be expected to remain open to provide care for children of key workers needed to tackle the spread of the coronavirus. These include NHS staff, emergency services workers and delivery drivers. A full list is available on the government website and can be found at this link.

The result is that a large number of working parents may need to take time away from work as time off for dependants. For more information on this right, please refer to our in depth employment law resource.

On 17 March 2020, the government announced that it will put aside emergency funding of £330 billion to support businesses of all sizes in a bid to help those impacted by the coronavirus.

Rishi Sunak has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to help the economy with an “unprecedented package” including government-backed loans equivalent to 15 per cent of GDP, with the potential to be extended further depending on the demand.

What’s Included in COVID-19 Emergency Funding?

  • Government backed loans with attractive terms for payment of rent, salaries, suppliers or stock.
  • For businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure, rates will be waived for 12 months for 2020/21.
  • The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme expanded from £1.2m to £5m with an interest waiver for first 6 months.
  • Grants to small businesses eligible for Small Business Rate Relief will be increased from £3,000 to £10,000.
  • Further £25,000 grants for retail, hospitality, and leisure businesses operating from smaller business premises defined as those within a rateable value between £15,000 and £51,000.
  • £10,000 one-off grant to businesses that pay little or no business rates due to small business rent relief or rural rate relief.
  • Small and medium sized business will be able to reclaim SSP for sickness due to COVID-19.
  • Support for liquidity for larger business with a new scheme from the Bank of England.
  • The advice to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres is sufficient to trigger a claim under business interruption insurance.
  • Pubs and restaurants are able to provide a takeaway service without a planning application.

 

On Friday 20 March, the government announced its plans for financial assistance to help organisations retain employees for an extended period of time, despite offering no work, and avoid lay-offs. It is called the Job Retention Scheme.

It involves organisations placing their employees on ‘furlough’. This isn't a term we use in UK employment law, and it seems to originate in the USA. It essentially means putting employees on temporary leave of absence where they do no work and receive no pay, but they are retained on an organisation's books to be brought back in when needed.

Whilst furlough traditionally means that the affected employee will receive no pay, the Job Retention Scheme will provide a grant from the Government to cover 80 per cent of furloughed employees’ wages, to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month, so the employer will need to continue to pay this (or a higher amount of if it chooses) to the employee.

Claims can be for a minimum of three weeks and up to a maximum of three months, however the guidance indicates that this may be extended. Workers will still pay Income Tax, National Insurance and any other deductions from their wages. They can also be placed on furlough more than once.

The grant will cover the period from the day employees are furloughed and will be backdated until 1 March 2020.

Organisations who are receiving public funding specifically to provide services deemed necessary by the government to tackle the coronavirus outbreak should not seek to furlough staff.

All organisations can make use of this scheme - there is no restriction on size or type. 

All workers are eligible to benefit from the grant, including those on zero-hour or temporary contracts.

Workers who were made redundant prior after 28 February can be re-employed and placed on furlough instead. 

Workers placed on furlough can still be made redundant. They can also be made redundant if they refuse to go on furlough. However, usual rules on redundancy will apply.

The law allows you to cancel annual leave that has already been authorised as long as you give the minimum required notice but you should proceed with caution here. Cancelling leave which has already been authorised, in any situation, is not likely to go down well with the employee and will often lead to a loss of money for them.

It should be noted that, as of 17 March 2020, the UK government is advising against all but essential global travel for a period of at least 30 days.

No, there is no requirement for you to do this. If you have specific rules on allowing employees to cancel their leave, you should stick to these but, in the circumstances, you may decide to be more flexible and allow cancellation.

Employers should not try to implement penalty clauses for these situations. It does remain highly likely that this type of deduction will be deemed an unlawful deduction from wages and so it is not advisable to proceed in this way. 

It should be noted that, as of 17 March 2020, the UK government is advising against all but essential global travel for a period of at least 30 days.

You can expect that the employee will try to identify other methods of getting back home. If, for whatever reason, they cannot travel back, there are several ways in which you can deal with this: 

  • use their annual leave to cover the absence. The length of their absence and their remaining entitlement to annual leave will dictate the extent to which you can do this. Using annual leave like this will have to be agreed with the employee unless you take the step of enforcing annual leave on the employee, meaning you need to give them notice that you require them to take annual leave that is twice as long as the time you require them to take. For example, a week’s leave will require two weeks’ notice. The uncertainty around the length of their absence may make this tricky;
  • agree for the employee to work from where they are for now if the nature of their job allows for this and they have the equipment they need to fulfil their duties. The employee cannot insist that they work from their location if it is clearly not tenable;
  • agree that the employee uses banked time off in lieu. It is not likely that the employee would have enough lieu time to cover an extended absence;
  • agree a period of paid leave that is not annual leave;
  • agree a period of unpaid leave;
  • agree any other type of leave permitted by the contract that may be appropriate.

 

Provided there are no travel restrictions preventing the visitors entering the UK which will take the matters out of your control, it’s up to you whether to postpone the visit. Your employees may raise concerns about potential exposure to the virus and you may wish to take this into consideration, though any unreasonable resistance should be dealt with accordingly. If you decide the visit should go ahead, ensure there are robust hygiene measures in place, restrict contact between your employees and the visitors as much as reasonably possible and take more care with any of your employees who are older, pregnant, have existing respiratory conditions or those who have diabetes, chronic lung disease or cancer.

It should be noted that, as of 17 March 2020, the UK government is advising against all but essential global travel for a period of at least 30 days.

It is best to take precautionary measures seen as your employee has potentially been in contact with someone who has the virus. A period of suspension (paid unless the contract says otherwise) is advisable.

Provided there are no travel restrictions in place preventing the visit, there is little you can do to stop this happening. Ensure the employee knows what to do if they begin to feel ill during or after the visit. Suspension of the employee would probably not be appropriate in this scenario unless you know or suspect that one of the family members has the virus but this will be your decision.

It should be noted that, as of 17 March 2020, the UK government is advising against all but essential global travel for a period of at least 30 days.

There is currently no evidence that Coronavirus can be carried in packages that have originated in China and so no grounds for your employees to refuse to deal with any that are received. To allay their fears, you could consider providing gloves which will be thrown away after each use, and encourage good hand hygiene.

 

 

Yes. The government has stated that all those who contract the virus are to be provided SSP from day one of their illness, not day four, however it has not yet been confirmed when this will come into force. 

For those who are self-isolating as a result of having a fever and/or a cough, they should also be provided SSP. 

If your company has less than 250 staff, the government has announced that it will cover the payment of statutory sick pay (SSP) for a minimum of two weeks per employee. 

If you send someone home despite them not showing symptoms, you are technically acting against government advice and should continue to pay them full pay. 

Employees in this situation would be able to covert their sickness absence to annual leave, however this must be their choice; you cannot enforce such an option. 

If an employee was legally obligated to stay away from the workplace, and are unable to work from their quarantined location (such as being told not to or being too ill), they should receive SSP. 

This will not necessarily result in a business closure, however you should contact your local Public Health England protection team. They will then carry out a risk assessment, discuss with you the individuals who may have been exposed and offer further advice on the steps you should take. This will include what cleaning would be advisable. 

Usually, such a option would be difficult to enforce without an employee's consent and could even result in claims of constructive dismissal or assault. However, if the nature of the business means it cannot risk the pandemic spreading across the workforce and would need to close in this situation unless it undertook health checks, consent may not be an issue. 

Taking such measures may actually be well-received by a workforce and help to reassure them that the organisation is protecting their health and safety. 

Taking such an action will be a variation of contract. To do this, you will first need to seek the consent of your workforce. Although they may be hesitant at agreeing to this change, they may decide differently if such a change is crucial to the survival of the business and maintaining their employment. 

If staff will not agree, you may then consider dismissing and re-engaging them on the new contract, although bear in mind that this could result in an unfair dismissal claim. 

You could also seek to unilaterally impose the change although you should be mindful for the potential of claims for unlawful deductions from wages or constructive dismissal. 

Yes, such an action could place them at a detriment. You should also bear in mind government guidance on self-isolating for those who are most at risk from the coronavirus. 

Government guidance outlines the following individuals are the most at risk:

  • Individuals aged over 70
  • Women who are pregnant
  • Individuals aged under 70 with an underlying health condition. These are listed as:
     
  • chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases
     
  • chronic heart disease
  • chronic kidney disease
  • chronic liver disease
  • chronic neurological conditions
  • diabetes
  • spleen issues, for example, sickle cell disease or where an individual has had their spleen removed
  • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
  • being seriously overweight (a body mass index of 40 or above).