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Going viral – a guide to Coronavirus for employers

Embrace HR Coronavirus advice

Has your business been affected by the Coronavirus, now known as COVID-19? Do you know what to do if an employee is diagnosed, what your responsibilities are for other staff, or are you just not sure what you should be doing and when? Our easy guide will give you some answers…

Coronavirus causes flu-like symptoms and can lead to serious illness and even death. The disease first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, and since then has spread around the world.

So far, the number of cases in the UK has proved relatively low (273 out of more than 23,000 people tested), at the time of writing, with two reported deaths. You can keep updated on the ever changing situation here and here.

Companies need to ensure that they know what to do and when, as the virus spreads. According to the government, it is possible that up to 20 per cent of your employees could be absent from work as the spread reaches its peak. For SMEs in particular, this could mean that significant members (and numbers) of your team are not in the workplace. The Government has shared guidance for employers and businesses on their website.

Best practice for employers

Here’s our checklist for your organisation, which is simple and easy to employ:

  • Communicate with your staff so that they know what actions have been put in place in the workplace to keep everyone safe and healthy and your expectations of them.
  • Ensure there are plenty of places to wash hands, with hot water and soap. Remind staff to wash their hands regularly; the BBC have reported one company using an egg timer! Provide hand sanitiser and tissues and encourage the use of both.
  • Educate managers on the symptoms to look out for. Make it clear that anyone with Coronavirus symptoms (cough, fever, breathing difficulties, chest pain) should not come into work until they have contacted 111 (either by phone or online) and received advice.
  • Do you have staff travelling abroad? Consider whether travel is absolutely necessary at this time.
  • Do you regularly plan team meetings or sales conferences? Again, consider whether, in the short term, these could be held by conference phone or video link.

Reducing the risk

The World Health Organisation lists these ways to reduce the risk of infection. We suggest you and your staff follow these not only in the workplace but at home and in public spaces too:

  • Wash hands regularly with soap or use alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Sneeze or cough into a tissue or, worst case, into your elbow. Dispose of tissues into a closed bin.
  • Avoid contact with anyone with cold-like symptoms.
  • Ensure you practise food safety – using different boards for raw and cooked meat, and washing hands between handling.

The virus at work

The question uppermost for most companies is surely ‘What do we do if we have an unwell member of staff at work – and will we have to shut down the workplace if they are diagnosed with Coronavirus?

Current advice states that if the person is unwell and has come back from an area affected by the virus, they should keep 2m away from others, be separated in a room with a closed door, such as a sick bay or office, use a separate toilet and use tissues for coughs and sneezes and dispose of the tissues. They must call NHS 111 on their own mobile device to get advice or contact NHS online at: 111.nhs.uk, or 999 if they are seriously ill.

Should you have an infected employee in your office, you may not necessarily have to close down your workplace. After the individual has contacted NHS 111, you will be contacted by the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team who will give further advice on assessment of the risk. You can refer to PHE’s advice and information online via their website.

Paying the price

What are the rules around sick pay if you have employees who have contracted the Coronavirus or who have to self-isolate?

The government has stated that anyone who has to self-isolate on the advice of NHS 111, or a doctor, (and not just those with confirmation of the virus) will receive statutory sick pay, or contractual sick pay if it is offered within your company, from day one.

Normally, you would require a fit note (formerly a sick note) after seven days of illness, but if the staff member is self-isolating this will not be possible, so as a company you will have to be flexible about this.

If you ask an employee not to come into work (because they have been to a high-risk area, for example), then they should be paid as usual. Currently, all travellers returning from China, northern Italy and South Korea, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, should self-isolate if they have a cough, high temperature or shortness of breath (even mild symptoms).

If you have staff returning from ‘lock-down’ areas – currently listed as: Northern Italy, Hubei province in China, Iran, and special care zones in South Korea, they should self-isolate regardless of whether they are showing symptoms or not.

You also need to consider your policy if an employee needs to take time off to look after a sick dependant or a child who is at home because their school has closed because of the Coronavirus. Ensure you know what your workplace policy is with regards to paid time off, family leave, or allowing staff to take any extra days as holiday.

What does ‘self-isolate’ mean?

You can direct a member of your staff who needs to self-isolate to the NHS website, which confirms the dos and don’ts during the 14-day period, including for those in shared accommodation.

What should I do in self-isolation?

Self-isolation means staying at home for 14 days, not going to work, school or other public places, and avoiding public transport or taxis, says Public Health England.

Common-sense steps include staying in a well-ventilated room with a window that can be opened. keeping away from other people in your home, and asking for help if you need groceries, other shopping or medication. It’s ok to have friends, family or delivery drivers drop off supplies to get you through the two weeks, but you shouldn’t have any visitors, PHE says. You can also have deliveries left on the doorstep.

Working from home

This is also a good time to look at your policy about working from home. You may have staff who do not want to come into work for a variety of reasons. They may be concerned about being in areas with high numbers of people – on the commute for instance. Try to be flexible if possible. Could you, for instance, allow them to come in earlier or later to avoid the rush hour?

As a good employer you should listen to their concerns. Make sure they know what has been put in place at work to ensure health and safety, but you must consider the wider health issues that could put your employee at a higher risk than normal. Those at particular risk may have suppressed immune systems, be pregnant, have respiratory issues, be older, or be living with long-term conditions such as diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease. You may have to move them from high-risk sites (where they have contact with members of the public) or enable them to work remotely. Remember that employers have special responsibilities for pregnant or disabled staff.

There is no need to panic, but it is also wise to plan for a worst-case scenario, where staff members are unable to come into the office. For instance, make sure that office-based staff are able to use work chats, conference calls and can gain access to work servers (for files and emails) while working from home.

Need more advice?

If you need more advice than we have provided here, employers have access to a free ACAS helpline and to find more information for employers on the website, visit www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus.

Stop Press

The chancellor of the exchequer has announced £7 billion of extraordinary measures to help support businesses and individuals who will be affected by the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak in his first Budget. Click here to learn more.

If you would like to discuss this subject further and find out how we could help you comply with regulations, please contact Cecily Lalloo at Embrace HR Limited.

T: 01296 769 282 or contact us here.

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Based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Embrace HR Limited supports business owners who do not have their own HR department or those that do but need help from time to time. We also work across the Home Counties of Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, and also SMEs based in London.