Development: since the publication of this article, it has been confirmed that individuals in the UK have tested positive for the virus. However, the below advice still applies.
With the Coronavirus potentially posing global risks, we assess what steps organisations can take in response to this.
The Coronavirus, which seems to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, is a potentially lethal condition that bears similarities to SARS. Whilst there is no confirmation as of yet that the virus has spread to the UK, it has already been registered in numerous other countries across the world, including Canada and France. In light of this, organisations should be prepared to take steps to try to minimise the dangers posed by this outbreak.
Travel to affected areas
Organisations should not insist that an employee travels to such an area for work related purposes and should advise employees against travel to such areas for both work and holiday purposes. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan.
It is understood that the virus can transfer between humans via saliva. Routine sanitisation and hygiene measures are said to be the best way to protect against becoming infected. Touching animals, or their droppings, when in China should be avoided.
Practical alternatives to travel include postponing a trip, and holding meetings via Skype or video conference where possible.
Employees returning from affected areas
Whilst organisations owe a duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety and to protect employees against reasonably foreseeable risks, there is currently no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension of non-symptomatic employees returning from holiday or work in an area known to have experienced incidences of Coronavirus. Additionally, third party pressure from colleagues should not be regarded as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension.
Where a returning employee appears to be symptomatic of potential exposure, they should be referred to their GP and matters taken from there. If the GP determines that they are symptomatic and certifies them unfit for work then they should be treated as off sick as per normal organisational procedure. Colleagues who have had contact with the symptomatic employee should be made aware of the symptoms and advised to contact their GP.
If the GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but the organisation is still concerned, then they may consider briefly suspending them on precautionary grounds.
Where an organisation does choose to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives the employer a right to suspend without pay for this reason. Such a suspension should not be considered a ‘medical suspension’.
Booked annual leave
Employees may wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice if they were planning to visit affected areas and this may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed by the employer. These requests should be granted where possible, otherwise employees might feel pressured to risk taking the holiday as originally planned.