- Coronavirus – Considerations for Health & Managing Your Workplace

Due to the rapidly changing nature of the Coronavirus situation, and to provide continued support to our readers, we are updating this blog post as news reports and new government directives break, so do check back regularly.  Updates can be found at the end of the post.  

Last Updated 22/05/2020

Covid-19, a new addition to the Coronavirus family, originating in Wuhan, China, causes pneumonia, with symptoms described as coughing, sore throat, runny nose, fever and breathing difficulties. The virus is typically spread via saliva and mucus droplets released through coughing and sneezing, landing on people and surfaces.

There is currently no cure – treatment focuses on supporting the immune system in fighting and recovery from the virus. The elderly, those with compromised immune systems and those with pre-existing or underlying health conditions are more at risk and make up the large majority of hospitalisations and deaths reported around the world.

What Is The Latest?

The UK’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, has advised that droplets of the Covid-19 infection can survive on hard surfaces (such as stair, bus and train handrails) for 72 hours. This information comes as the number infected in the UK reaches 1402 and the country considers moving into the ‘delay’ phase of the 4-phase plan laid out by the government to halt Coronavirus (‘Contain, Delay, Research, Mitigate’), aimed at slowing the spread of the virus until the summer months when the weather is less favourable to its transmission and NHS hospitals are under less pressure.

Sadly, we have seen 35 Coronavirus-related deaths in the UK – all of whom suffered with underlying health conditions.

However, promising figures released at the start of March showed that the number of Chinese patients who have recovered from the virus is now greater than those still being treated, suggesting that the originating country is now overcoming the epidemic, while providing a positive outlook for the rest of the world.

Still, Coronavirus presents not only concerns for health, but also concerns for the potential impact on workplace operations, logistics, travel, economies, communities and more.

As employers, it is important to plan and be prepared for any steps the government recommends we take in the coming weeks to limit the spread, as well as for managing our workplaces, should Coronavirus ever come directly to our doors.

What Measures Can We Take To Stay Well And Stop The Spread?

● Hands should be washed frequently with clean water and soap for approximately 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice;
● Coughs and sneezes should be caught in tissues, immediately disposed of into a bin before washing the hands;
● In the absence of tissues, cough or sneeze into the elbow, not the hands;
● Avoid touching the face and eyes if hands are not clean;
● Provide tissues and hand sanitising gel for all staff, especially in communal areas;
● Sanitise working spaces, hard surfaces and communal areas frequently;
● Limit large gatherings such as conferences;
● Limit non-essential work-related travel; and
● Should one suspect they are suffering Coronavirus symptoms, initiate a 2-week self-quarantine (as per current NHS and government recommendation) and contact NHS 111 for further advice.

Consider the Possibilities

Many of our readers and clients have come to us with questions about managing the Coronavirus situation from an operational standpoint;

Consider the possibility that employees may not want to come into work, for fear of exposing themselves to Coronavirus. These concerns should be carefully listened to, and where possible, provide flexible working options such as working from home. Employees may request holiday or unpaid leave, but employers are not under obligation to agree to this.

Consider the possibility that schools may close. Some employees may be left without childcare to cover the closure. Again, wherever possible, offer flexible working options such as working from home or reduced hours. Where flexibility in working arrangements are not possible, bear in mind that a carer is legally entitled to reasonable time off to care for a dependant wihtout pay/

Consider the possibility that an employee has been in contact with someone with Coronavirus. In this case, the employee may be advised to work from home, where possible. They will be entitled to their usual pay under these circumstances (read more on this later).

Consider the possibility that an employee falls ill with Coronavirus at work. Relocate the individual to an area away from colleagues, ideally with a closed door, advising them that they should avoid touching surfaces or shared equipment such as phones or computers. Advise them to use their own mobile phone to contact their GP or NHS 111 for advice. You may also send them home.

Consider the possibility that a Coronavirus-diagnosed employee chooses to come into work anyway. Again, you may isolate the individual as above, or you may send them home. A call to the local Public Health England (PHE) health protection team can provide a risk assessment and investigation of your workplace, to gauge whether the workplace should temporarily close or not.

Consider the possibility that your workplace needs to close for some time. Be prepared by ensuring you have contact numbers for all employees, and that they have ways and means for contacting each other. Those with work laptops and mobile phones may be able to work from home.

And Sick Pay?

For those off work with Coronavirus, or those advised to self-quarantine for 1 or 2 weeks by a GP or NHS 111, normal sick leave and statutory sick pay (SSP) applies. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 4th March 2020 that, to accommodate the current situation, unwell and self-isolating employees would receive sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth as per existing legislation. Furthermore, Matt Hancock (Health Secretary) announced on BBC Question Time that the Government are currently working on plans to offer financial support to those who do not usually qualify for SSP under normal circumstances (i.e. those with earnings below the £118 p/w week threshold or those who are self-employed), as these individuals should not be penalised for “doing the right thing”. We will of course update on this as it further develops.

16th March 2020 – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces “Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can.”  Employers must now turn to their contingency plans set in place for such a development.  These could include ensuring all communication channels are operational; that staff have access to work laptops and remote access; and contact details for all colleagues are up to date.

17th March 2020 – Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed the Treasury would guarantee £330bn worth of loans to businesses and increase support for smaller firms facing hardship or potential closure as a result of social distancing measures.

18th March 2020 – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that UK schools, colleges and early years settings will close on Friday 19 March, except for children of key workers and vulnerable children.  Many parents may already be working from home under the advice of their employers, but for many who are still in the workplace, it does pose challenges with regard to childcare and taking time off, particularly as the government has advised that children should not be left with Grandparents.  Please refer to our article above for advice on statutory leave and pay.  

20th March 2020 – Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK has announced that all VAT payments are postponed until the end of June 2020. This will affect approximately 2 million VAT payers and delay £30 billion in taxes as it includes pre-pandemic trading.  Income tax payments due on 31 July 2020 under the UK self-assessment system will be deferred until 31 January 2021.  This will primarily affect self-employed persons who pay their income tax in installments.

20th March 2020 –  The Government announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), under which employers can claim a grant from HMRC to cover 80% of the pay (up to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month) plus additional employment costs for employees who have been furloughed but remain on the payroll. As at 20th March, the furlough claim period, for eligible employees, runs from 1st March 2020 until 31st May 2020.

26th March 2020 – The UK Government announced its new Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, which will pay self-employed persons with trading profits less than £50,000, a taxable grant worth 80% of average monthly profit taken over the last three years, to a maximum of £2,500 per month.  Payments are expected to be made from June and we understand that it will be paid in one lump sum, backdated to March.

27th March 2020 – The Government announced that it will bring out regulations that allow up to 4 weeks of unused holiday to be carried over into the next two leave years, where it has not been taken due to COVID-19.  The policy changes will be included in the Working Time Regulations, so will cover almost all workers, including agency staff and those on zero-hours contracts.

27th March 2020 – The UK Government announced that it will cover employer pension payments for furloughed staff.

15th April 2020 – The HMRC updated its guidance on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.  The update included confirmation that employers could furlough and claim for employees who were on their PAYE payroll, with an RTI submission having been made, on or before 19 March 2020 (previously, employees hired after 28 February were excluded). Whilst an employee who is on sick leave or self-isolating can be furloughed for business reasons, shifting them from sick pay to furlough pay, it shouldn’t be a consideration when deciding to furlough an employee, furthermore they cannot be furloughed until their period of absence has ended i.e. their Fit Not expires.  This and other guidance updates can be found here 

17th April 2020 – Chancellor Rishni Sunak announced that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) will be extended to 31st June 2020.

24th April 2020 – New regulations have come into force ensuring that furloughed workers who take maternity or other paid family-related leave will have their pay based on their usual earnings, rather than their reduced furloughed pay.

29th April 2020 – The Government announced that testing would be extended to workers who cannot work from home, who have developed symptoms of Coronavirus.  As results are returned within 48 hours, it allows those testing negative to return to work right away, as opposed to the 7-day self-isolation regulation.

12th May 2020  Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that the Job Retention Scheme will be extended until the end of October 2020, with some changes to be notified.  It comes after evidence that the Scheme needed more flexibility, for example to enable employers to bring workers back on reduced hours.

If you have concerns or questions, or require advice on how to manage this developing situation, please do not hesitate to contact us.