Although the risk of catching the COVID-19 virus is extremely low, ACAS has published advice for employers on how to deal with the impact of the virus in the workplace.
The guidance includes tips on how to handle staff in quarantine and their sick pay, and those who do not want to come into work due to fears of contracting the virus. It also covers dealing with an outbreak and closing the workplace if matters turn serious enough to warrant doing so.
At present, there are 15 patients in the UK who have been tested positive for the virus where the majority have recovered and been discharged from hospital.
However the Chief Executive of ACAS, Susan Clews, has said that “the increase in coronavirus is headline news around the world and there are genuine concerns on how to deal with its impact in UK workplaces.” This has caused employers and employers “to get in touch with [ACAS] to ask what their rights are at work when dealing with the potential coronavirus.”
Sick pay and quarantine
There is no legal obligation for an employee to receive their pay if they are not sick but cannot work as they have been quarantined or have been advised by their doctor to self-isolate. However ACAS says that it is good practice for an employer to treat this situation as sick leave or offer the employee the option to take this as paid annual leave. They explain that this will help reduce the risk that employees may feel obliged to come into work which could potentially spread the virus.
Managing concerned employees
ACAS advises that it is important to listen to employees’ concerns and offer reassurance if they do not want to go into work due to the fear of catching coronavirus. In order to manage this, there are options to consider which includes allowing them to take time off as holiday or unpaid leave; or offering them flexible working arrangement such as working from home (where the nature of the job makes this feasible).
Dealing with an outbreak
In the event that the virus manages to spread more widely in the UK, it is ACAS’ advice that employers should consider implementing some simple steps to protect the health and safety of their staff. This can include steps such as:-
- encouraging everyone to wash their hands regularly and give out hand sanitisers and tissues;
- keeping everyone updated on the actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace;
- making sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date; and
- ensuring that managers know how to spot the symptoms of the coronavirus and are aware of the relevant processes put in place.
Closing the workplace
The guidance also provides assistance to employers to help prepare themselves in case they need to close the workplace temporarily due to the spread of the virus. If this is necessary, then ACAS urges employers to talk with staff as early as possible and keep them updated throughout the period of the closure.
In order to plan for workplace closures, ACAS recommends:-
- ask staff who have work laptops or phones to take them home to allow them to work from home;
- arrange paperwork tasks that can be done at home for staff who do not use computers to work; and
- ensure that there is a method of communication between employers and employees.
Advice from the government
The UK government has also been proactive in providing UK employers with advice surrounding the coronavirus. The Department of Health and Social Care publishes updates every day at 2pm here (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public),
On 26 February, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that he considered self-isolation should be considered “sickness for employment purposes”, apparently echoing what Acas have said amounts to best practice (as noted above). He added that “It’s a very important message for employers and for those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick because it’s for medical reasons.”
Although few people have been diagnosed with the virus in the UK, it is important to consider the implications which an outbreak may have on the workplace and consider the steps necessary to protect the health and safety of employees.
Employers have a duty of care to employees and so will need to ensure that reasonable measures are taken to ensure the health and safety, as well as the general wellbeing of their staff. We think that Acas’ advice reminds us of this duty, and provides helpful tips on how it can be maintained throughout this period.
This is also the perfect time to review workplace policies and procedures, such as the health and wellbeing policy and absence through sickness policy, to check that they are up to date and cover the issues raised above concerning any outbreak in the UK and its impact on workplaces.