The coronavirus outbreak has been declared an international public health emergency, and the current risk level in the UK has been set at ‘moderate’. There are no current signs of the spread slowing down, with an increasing number of positive tests in the UK and worldwide. On 3 March 2020, the UK government announced that as many as a fifth of UK workers could be absent from work at the peak of the outbreak. With this in mind, here are our top tips for employers in managing the HR and employment implications:
- Stay abreast of official guidance, particularly from the UK government, Public Health England, the World Health Organisation and the NHS. Guidance on how businesses should act and guidance on self-isolation is likely to be updated in response to the ever-changing circumstances and the level of risk posed, and emergency legislation in respect of employment matters may be introduced.
- Regularly monitor risk levels in your business. This may involve keeping a track of when and where people have travelled (business or personal), when and where people have been in contact with confirmed or suspected cases, and being aware of which individuals are more susceptible (e.g. if they are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if they have certain medical conditions) so that appropriate steps can be taken. Steps taken should be proportionate and reasonable to the risks identified.
- Review policies on absence, annual leave, sickness reporting and sick pay, and consider whether to make any temporary coronavirus-related changes to these. An ultimate aim will be to avoid inadvertently spreading the virus by encouraging (or not dissuading) employees to attend work when they ought to be at home, particularly because of financial pressures. Additional flexibility for both the company and workers is also likely to be beneficial.
- Consider what adjustments can be made to working arrangements, such as allowing employees (who can) to work from home, making adjustments within the workplace to reduce risks of spreading the virus and responding to specific concerns that workers may have. Technology can be often be used to minimise the need for travel or face-to-face meetings.
- Ensure effective communication throughout the outbreak, so that your workforce is aware of what is happening, what is being done to reduce exposure in the workplace, how to spot symptoms, what to do if they suspect they or someone else has symptoms, etc. This includes ensuring contact details and emergency contact details are up to date, and ensuring staff know who they should contact. Regular open and honest communications will help control the flow of information, manage misinformation and help enable those who are working away from home to stay connected with work.
- Have an effective contingency plan in place in preparation for widespread absences or disruption to your business. This could involve upskilling people to cover business critical roles and ensuring remote working structures are accessible and robust enough for widespread use. Also remain realistic about the impact the outbreak could have in the longer term on your business if there is a knock-on effect on the economy, and consider planning your response.
- Be mindful or potential abuse of the circumstances, with some individuals using the outbreak as an opportunity to be absent from work, particularly where rules around sickness and paid absence have been relaxed. Those who unreasonably refuse to come into work and/or situations where there is suspicion of abuse could be dealt with as usual under absence or disciplinary policies. Employers should nevertheless act reasonably; health and safety concerns and current official guidance will be relevant.
Remember not to discriminate when applying decisions on how to treat individuals (e.g. when allowing time off, when adjusting working arrangements and/or pay, or when amending any policies to address the outbreak). Also, be mindful of potential indirect discrimination issues when adjusting or creating policies to address the virus outbreak (e.g. travel restrictions to certain countries may indirectly discriminate against certain nationalities and whilst this may be justified, outright travel bans are potentially excessive if post-trip self-isolation has been agreed).