How To Manage The Risk To Business: Coronavirus

How To Manage The Risk To Business: Coronavirus

At the end of last week, the World Health Organisation raised its global risk assessment of Coronavirus from high to very high.  With the amount of cases rising in this country, there is a real risk of interference with normal home and work life; with regard to the latter, Anthony Best, Managing Partner of Prince Evans Solicitors LLP addresses some of the main issues facing employers and businesses in this first of two commentaries

As always, employers must have regard to their duties to protect the health and safety of their workforce, as well as third parties who come into contact with and are affected by their business; to include duties not to discriminate and to make reasonable adjustments for the disabled

Public Health England have issued a strategy and guidance to assist with Coronavirus, (such guidance is not mandatory but employers are advised to introduce new policies and procedures to deal with Coronavirus)

14 day self-isolation: what does it mean?

As explained in the media, this is isolation at home, with limited contact with others. In the case of office workers, the majority of employees will be able to work from home, however for those carrying out functions away from an office and computer environment they will be unable to work

Who should be subject to self-isolation?

Employees who have travelled back from an area where Coronavirus is present and have symptoms and are awaiting a test result as to whether they are infected, or not, (symptoms and a test, is not required if the employee has returned from China, Iran, certain areas in Northern Italy and South Korea) together with employees who are in contact with a victim of the Coronavirus

Can an employee refuse to self-isolate?

On any view, a request to self-isolate in accordance with the Public Health England strategy and guidance is reasonable and should be followed by the employee.  A refusal to comply with such a request is likely to put him/her in breach of their own duties owed to their employer and any third party who comes into contact with them at work, with the consequence of disciplinary action and possibly dismissal; although legal advice must be taken in this respect

Employers may be able to make use of gardening leave clauses within contracts of employment to force the issue

Are employees entitled to be paid during self-isolation? 

This is a difficult question for employers both legally and morally

In the ordinary course of events, if an employee is incapable of working due to ill health, then depending on their entitlements under their contract of employment, they will be entitled to sick pay and ultimately, Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). But what if an employee has self-isolated, (and does not develop the Coronavirus) and cannot work from home, where does this leave an employer?

Yesterday, (4 March 2020) PM Boris Johnson announced that employees will get SSP from the first day off work, not the fourth, to help contain coronavirus.  He said that people who self-isolate are helping to protect others from the virus and should not be “penalised for doing the right thing”; but where does this leave employers with contractual sick pay?

One distinction that has been drawn is where self-isolation is on the recommendation of medical advice, but the Public Health England strategy and guidance goes beyond this

ACAS has tried to intervene here in suggesting that it would be good practice for an employer to treat self-isolation as sick leave because there will otherwise be a risk that employees will come to work in order to get paid, in which case they could spread the virus

Emergency legislation may be required in this respect, if the virus spreads beyond certain limits (although nothing has been decided here) but it is a matter for individual employers to decide.  It is thought that a reasonable position would be to pay sick leave if self-isolation is on the recommendation of medical advice, or at the request of the employer; otherwise sick pay should not be paid by an employer

What if an employee wants time off by reason of a school closure, or requirement to self-isolate, which affects their child but not them directly?

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, there is a right to take time off to help dependants, to include an unexpected disruption to child care; however, there is no right to be paid under the legislation.  Whilst contracts of employment or an employer’s handbook may provide pay in such circumstances, again it is a matter for individual employers to decide