Coronavirus | Employment and health and safety FAQs

All you need to know about how your business can take appropriate risk control measures in the face of coronavirus (COVID-19).

The implications of the virus on businesses and their employees are far-reaching and changing quickly. The following FAQ, which will be continually updated as new guidance is made available, provides you with a one-stop-shop for all the key questions you need to be considering.

Health and safety FAQs

What are my health and safety responsibilities?

As an employer, you have a duty of care under health and safety law to support your employees during outbreaks such as coronavirus and to take precautions to prevent exposure. The best way to do this is to develop a plan describing not only how you are going to reduce the risk of infection but also how to respond in the event of an outbreak.

To help you develop your plan, we have set out below some important areas to consider. Where appropriate, we have also directed you to other useful sources of advice and guidance as provided by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE), who are leading the UK response to the coronavirus situation.

If you require any further advice and support on managing the risks associated with coronavirus, please contact your designated Health & Safety Consultant or call the EW Helpline on 0345 226 8393.

What can I do from a health and safety point of view to keep staff safe?

Good personal hygiene can help to prevent the spread of pathogens such as coronavirus. Best practice hygiene measures include:

  • The provision of handwashing facilities and alcohol-based hand sanitiser where appropriate
  • Frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
  • Covering mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throwing the tissue away immediately and washing your hands
  • Avoiding close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough
  • Ensuring work surfaces are cleaned and waste removed daily

Further helpful advice on infection prevention and control is available from the World Health Organisation website.

What should I do if staff are displaying symptoms or concerned they might have coronavirus?

If employees have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, they should self-isolate for seven days. If symptoms persist or complications arise, then they should use the 111 online coronavirus service to find out what to do next. In Scotland, employees should call their GP or NHS 24 on 111 for advice out of hours. 

The NHS have asked the public not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. Advice line services should be used in the first instance.

What if I have staff working in other countries who are planning to return to the UK?

Your duty as an employer extends to carrying out an assessment of the risks of being infected with the coronavirus whilst travelling, working in and returning from other countries. As the spread of coronavirus is changing by the day, it is most important that you keep up to date with the latest information and advice provided by the government.

You can find the latest advice for British people travelling and living overseas following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China, and in other countries worldwide on the GOV.UK website.

What does a travel risk assessment involve?

The Institution of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSH) has produced guidance on how to protect travelling employees and how organisations can manage risk. It says that to effectively manage travel risk, you will need to ensure you have proportionate and robust policies, procedures and controls in place.

Here are some important considerations when conducting your risk assessment:

  • Is travel absolutely necessary?
  • Can you achieve the same result with video conferencing and spare the organisation and traveller the risk, time, cost and environmental impact?
  • If travel is deemed necessary, make sure the risk is managed effectively but proportionately with controls identified and implemented that reflect the nature and severity of the risk.
  • Make sure you always know where your workers are and where they are going.
  • Should your employees become involved in an incident or emergency situation, you will need to have a means by which to provide support for them.

You should also provide relevant information, instruction and training to travelling employees, the nature and extent of which should be identified during the risk assessment process. For further guidance, see the NHS advice for travellers.

Employment Law FAQs

With staff being told to remain at home for 14 days following their return from an area where coronavirus has been identified, there are clear employment law implications. Our Employment Law specialists answer some of the queries you may have regarding your workforce.

Can I lay off without pay?

That depends on the terms of the employee’s Contract of Employment. You should check whether there is a lay off clause in the contract that would permit you to require them to remain at home without pay in these circumstances. If necessary, take advice on the contents of the contract before acting.

So, do I need to pay?

If you decide to send an employee home or refuse to allow them to attend work, they will be entitled to be paid for that time off.

If the employee self-isolates because they are given a written notice, either from their GP or by 111, they should be regarded as off sick and will be entitled to statutory or contractual sick pay for that time off.

Following new legislation on 13 March, the government announced that SSP will be payable to anyone isolating themselves “from other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus disease, in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England”. This is likely to include anyone who has been advised to stay at home for seven days if they have either a high temperature or a new continuous cough.

The government has also announced a proposal that if paying statutory sick pay (SSP), the requirement for waiting days will be waived in this instance. That means SSP will be payable from day one of absence rather than day four as would normally be the case. Note, though, that this change has not yet been implemented and we do not know when that will happen. The current rate of SSP is £94.25 per week for anyone earning over £118 per week. That rate will increase to £95.85 from 6 April 2020.

There are other potential options:

  • If employees can work from home, this should be utilised.
  • You could agree that the employee takes the time off as paid holiday.
  • It may be possible to force employees to take time off as annual leave. The difficulty here is timing, given that notice of the holidays must be at least twice the length of the period of leave that the employee is being ordered to take. However, this may be possible in the second week of absence. For example, if absence starts on a Monday, you could force the employee to take four days’ holiday (Tuesday to Friday the following week) by giving notice of that requirement on the first day of absence. This approach is compliant with the relevant law, as you will have given eight days’ notice of the requirement to take four days’ holiday.

What if employees say that if I don’t pay them, they will come to work – but I don’t want them at work for safety reasons?

If the employee attends work and you send them home for safety reasons, they will be entitled to full pay for that absence unless you can agree for the employee to work from home or take holidays.

What if someone is sneezing, etc. but can’t afford to stay off work unless I pay them?

As above, if the employee attends work and you send them home, they will be entitled to full pay for that absence unless you can agree for the employee to work from home or take holidays.

What if I can’t afford to pay people for not working?

This is a difficult and largely untested area. If an employee attends work and is ready willing and able to work, and you send them home, they must be paid full pay. However, if you have genuine financial concerns about your ability to pay people in these circumstances, then you may be able to come to other arrangements with them.

As above, you should check for the existence of a lay off clause or see if they are willing to take holidays. You can force holidays in the second week of absence as mentioned, thereby reducing your financial burden. In extreme circumstances, you may be able to agree with employees that they will receive a reduced rate of pay for the period, but such an agreement should be recorded in writing.

Should I make people work from home where possible to do so?

Yes. Working from home is a preferable option in these circumstances if it is possible.

Do employees have the right to work from home where possible to do so?

Not many employees will have the express contractual right to work from home but most employees are willing to do so given the positive impact on work/life balance. It is acceptable to agree with employees that they will work from home.

In what circumstances might I need to stop my staff (e.g. sales people, teachers or retail staff) interacting with the public/travelling/meeting others?

At the moment, the government is not suggesting that travel within the UK should be limited, nor should interacting with others, so it is difficult to see any circumstances where this would be necessary on current advice.

Advice for schools

You may have heard that a handful of schools have closed after staff and pupils returned from skiing trips to a coronavirus-hit region of Italy. This follows advice from the government that anyone returning from affected areas should self-isolate.

As the situation is still developing, we would direct you to the following sources, which provide specific advice for schools:

In terms of employment law implications and the advice outlined above regarding sickness absence, it is worth noting that:

  • Lay-off clauses are unusual in school contracts, so are unlikely to apply.
  • Asking employees to take time off as paid holiday is likely to be of limited value in schools, where many staff are contractually obligated to take holiday during school holidays only.
  • If staff on Burgundy and Green book terms test positive for coronavirus, they are entitled to full pay under the infectious disease control provisions, and such pay does not count towards occupational sick pay.

If a teacher lives with someone who contracts coronavirus (or any infectious disease), they are also entitled to full pay provided that they notify the school and the medical advice is not to attend work. The same entitlement applies if the teacher is advised by a medical practitioner for precautionary reasons not to attend the work due to infectious disease in the workplace.

The Department for Education has created a helpline for school staff, leaders and parents in a bid to help control the spread of coronavirus. This is available from 8am to 6pm on 0800 046 8687.

At present, the advice from Public Health England and the Department for Education is that schools should remain open. The position from Ofqual is that schools prepare for summer exams and assessments as usual.