Given that the UK’s chief medical officer has indicated that a Cornoavirus epidemic is now likely in the UK, and with government plans stating that as many as one in five workers could be off sick at once, this is obviously a worrying time for employers and employees alike. Whilst the situation is extremely fluid and there’s still a lot we don’t know, the prospect of a major outbreak clearly has significant implications for employers and will affect how their organisations operate.  So, without scaremongering, it’s important that employers take sensible measures to ensure they’re as prepared as possible.

With the government advising people to self-isolate to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, it’s possible that hundreds of employees could have to stay out of the office for the recommended 14-day isolation period. The government has advised that encouraging employees to work from home may be one way to help slow the spread of the virus, so it may well be sensible for employers, as a precautionary measure, to consider how they can facilitate remote working and, where possible, to offer their staff the option of working from home. 

Already, the government has announced changes to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) rules, so that employees will get statutory sick pay (SSP) from their first day off work rather than the fourth as part of plans to stem the spread of coronavirus. It also seems likely that the requirement for medical certification for absences longer than 7 days will have to be relaxed, given that those who self-isolate for the 14-day isolation period have been advised not to visit a GP. In addition, unions are calling for the government to support workers who do not qualify for SSP, such as those on zero-hours contracts and to extend medical suspension legislation to cover coronavirus-related absences. Employers will, therefore, need to be alert to the latest developments and be ready to adapt their policies and procedures accordingly.

Organisations have a duty of care to their staff under health and safety legislation and will need to consider how they can mitigate the risks of infection within their workforce. Risk assessments will be necessary and, in particular, controls identified and put in place to help protect those members of staff who are at greatest risk from the affects of the virus, such as older workers, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women.

Employers are advised to make plans now for how they will manage with increased sickness absence levels and a reduced workforce if the situation escalates. They will need to have business continuity plans in place to ensure their business can continue to function under a range of possible scenarios. Ultimately, however, these plans may also have to include consideration of what will happen if organisations are forced to close offices and lay-off staff.

Other employment issues may also arise if the outbreak spreads widely in the UK.  This may include staff needing to take time off to care for dependents, employees refusing to attend work despite being well, or others refusing to stay home when sick. So, all-in-all, there are a range of tricky issues that employers are likely to encounter over the coming months, whatever happens.

To help our customers navigate these issues, as they evolve, and to enable them to put effective contingency plans in place, we’ve produced a series of FAQs which draw on the latest government information and other sources of guidance and advice. We will keep this information under continual review and it will be updated, as necessary. Please click here to view our Coronavirus FAQs.

If you aren’t currently a customer, but would like to discuss how we can help you ensure you HR policies and procedures are robust enough to deal with the issues that may be raised by an outbreak of the virus, please click here to get in touch and one of our HR experts will get back to you ASAP.