Covid-19 (Coronavirus)
Sentient Group Ltd
Info Update 2020/05                                                         Issue Date: 28/02/2020
COVID-19 (Coronavirus) – Update
As more people are diagnosed with the above virus, we are receiving more queries on the subject. On 30th January 2020, we issued an Information Update, with some guidance in relation to anyone who may have returned from Wuhan and the Hubei province but since then, there have been outbreaks in other parts of the world.
It’s important to note that our updates on this topic cannot be taken as legal advice on your specific circumstances and we are not qualified to give medical advice, so the start point is keep checking official sources.  Remember that news media and the press may not report all the relevant information so the government updates published daily at 2pm have the latest statistics and advice.

Whilst there are reports of people in the UK with the virus, at the time of writing, the risk level is currently identified as moderate, according to the Government website. This is higher than previously reported. 

To minimise the spread of the virus, it is appropriate that sensible measures are taken by everyone. It has been well publicised that individuals returning from certain ‘infected’ areas should self-isolate for a minimum 2-week period and ring the NHS 111 helpline and follow the advice provided.

Some of the common questions we are asked are commented on below:

How can we reduce the risk to our employees?
You may wish to send round an email/guidance encouraging employees to follow some simple measures to prevent the spread of infections:
  • Always wash hands regularly with soap and warm water.
  • Regularly clean surfaces around the home and at work, particularly keyboards, handrails, telephones and door handles (including fridge and cupboards etc.) and other frequently touched surfaces/items.
  • Use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth for coughs and sneezes.
  • If you don’t have a tissue, try to sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow, covering your mouth and nose as much as possible.
  • Put used tissues in the bin as soon as possible and wash your hands.
  • If you become ill, avoid contact with other people to avoid spreading the infection by staying off work until you feel better.
  • If an employee at work begins to feel unwell, and believes it might be COVID-19, they should inform their manager (preferably by ‘phone) and explain the situation, and ring NHS 111 helpline and follow the advice given.

If an employee is not sick but is in quarantine or self-isolation, do we have to pay them sick pay?
There is no legal right to sick pay in these circumstances.  The danger of this approach of course is you run the risk of employees coming into work and potentially spreading the virus to the rest of the workforce.  It will be a matter for employers to decide but a common view would be to treat them as 'unfit' for work and apply your sick pay provisions.  Employees can self certify for 7 days but thereafter the usual requirement to provide a doctor's note may not be that easy, so it may be sensible to waive that requirement in these circumstances. However, if you suspect the employee is ‘skiving’, and using this as an excuse, then – subject to having reasonable grounds to believe they are ‘skiving’, you should ask the employee to provide evidence from their GP, by way of a medical certificate. Some GPs may not issue a medical certificate, or you may need to pay a fee for the medical certificate.

What if an employee does not want to self-isolate?
Employees have a duty to look after their own health and safety as well as their colleagues, which, in our view, includes following the advice of NHS 111 and self-isolation, if so advised; not to mention cooperating with the employer to ensure a safe workplace environment.  Remind employees this is the case. If you were inclined to move things on a few steps and wish to bar employees from attending work, then you should take specific legal advice and note that in these circumstances the likely outcome is you would have to pay normal earnings. 

What if employees do not want to come to work?
Some people may be worried about catching coronavirus and therefore unwilling to come into work. If this is the case you should listen carefully to the concerns of your employees and if possible, offer flexible working arrangements such as homeworking; though for the majority of jobs this is of course not feasible which the media seems to forget when reporting.  Employees can request time off as holiday or unpaid leave but there is no obligation on employers to agree to this. If an employee refuses to attend work, you are entitled to take disciplinary action with that absence being unauthorised. Whether dismissal falls within the band of reasonable responses will be dependent on the facts of each individual case, as it will depend upon the reasonableness of the employee’s concern. At the moment it is probably not a sackable offence, but that might change. 
The advice and comment in this update is not meant to be an authoritative statement of the law. The articles and summaries should not be applied to any specific set of facts and circumstances without seeking further advice. Whilst every care is taken to ensure that the content is correct Sentient cannot accept responsibility for the accuracy of statements made nor the result of any actions taken by individuals after reading such.
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