Employment lawyers are advising UK businesses to consider the potential impact that an outbreak of the coronavirus could have on their day-to-day operations.
Although there are still less than 20 confirmed cases in the UK, businesses are being urged to have a response plan in place.
Martha McKinley, employment law solicitor and senior associate at Stephensons Solicitors says: “If managers are faced with staff who are unwell or concerned about possible infection, a well-prepared company policy will mean they feel confident in offering the correct response and are seen to remain calm.”
For some businesses asking staff to work from home may be a practical option, for those who need to “self-isolate” or for a business that is concerned about the virus spreading, although of course this will depend on the nature of the work being undertaken.
McKinley says: “If home working is an option then this should be considered if a member of staff is being quarantined but is still able to work, or is a vulnerable employee, for example if they are pregnant or at a higher risk of infection.
“It is important to note that remote working is at the employer’s discretion as legally they do not have to be offered.”
The legal firm also pointed out that employers have an overarching obligation to take reasonable steps to safeguard their employees while at work. In addition to this duty are the relevant pieces of health and safety legislation which also afford protection to employees, and should be borne in mind by employers when drawing up a response plan.
However it also adds that while relevant ACAS guidelines state that there is no statutory right to paid sick leave while staff are quarantined but not actually unwell, an employer may want to consider its obligation to other members of staff and agree to pay quarantined employees to reduce the risk of a virus spreading.
McKinley adds that companies should consider what their policy would be regarding pay, if they were forced to close on a temporary basis.
In some industries there will be a ‘lay off’ clause within an employment contract, which is a provision designed to deal with a situation in which an employer cannot provide an employee with work, for example, a factory may be forced to close.
However if a contract does not contain this arrangement, and there is no corresponding union agreement, then an employer will still have to pay staff even if a business cannot provide work.
She adds: “It’s important for employers to draft and modify their policies and have a response plan in place around pandemics in the wake of the coronavirus, so staff understand their health and safety rights, and the spread of highly contagious viruses can be controlled.”