How should employers handle the Coronavirus outbreak?

Paul Holcroft, Associate Director at Croner, explains how employers can tackle the threat of Coronavirus

Although the number of reported cases of coronavirus in the UK is low, the situation is quickly evolving. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and must take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce. Here are some of the main issues that will affect employers regarding the recent virus outbreak and how to deal with them.

Wellbeing

It’s important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.

Give employees the facts

The risk of anyone who has not recently been to China picking up the infection is very low, unless someone they are close to has the virus. Risk of becoming infected will differ depending on personal circumstances, but it is important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concern proportionate to the risk.

Business travel

Consider alternatives to any planned travel to China, e.g. postponing a trip, or carrying out meetings via Skype. If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk. Always know where your employees are and where they are going. Ensure they are given clear instructions on hygiene. If employees report symptoms of the virus while they are travelling, you will have to support them. You should also consider making plans to enable any of your employees who are based in China for work to return to the UK.

Employees returning from affected areas 

The Government line is that anyone returning from the Hubei province within the last 14 days should stay at home, and anyone returning from countries such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand etc. within the previous 14 days who has symptoms should stay at home. Non-symptomatic employees returning from places outside of the Hubei province can attend work. Still, if you have concerns (particularly if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on full pay on precautionary grounds.

Existing health conditions

When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable, e.g. those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes, cancer as well as those who are pregnant or are older.

Discrimination, bullying and harassment 

Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality. You should be alert to ‘banter’, and other instances of harassment, between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity and ensure that your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.

Hygiene measures 

The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are:

  • frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
  • when coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
  • avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.