Coronavirus Outbreak Q&A

We're getting lots of questions from employers about how they should handle HR issues around Coronavirus. It's a fast-developing situation, and government guidance is updated daily, but here are our answers to the most common questions. 

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What is the Job Support Scheme?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the Job Support Scheme (JSS) on 24th September. The Scheme starts on 1st November and will run for six months.

The JSS will replace the Job Retention Scheme (also known as the "furlough" scheme) and has two elements. One element will support employers to retain workers in employment but on reduced hours; another element will support businesses ordered to close by law to pay two thirds of employees' wages.

What is the Job Retention Bonus?

The Job Retention Bonus was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on 8th July. Employers will receive a one-off payment of £1,000 in respect of each previously-furloughed employee they keep  continuously employed through to 31st January 2021.

To qualify, employees must be paid at least £520 each month and remain in continuous employment.

The Chancellor has confirmed that the Job Retention Bonus also applies to employees kept in work under the Job Support Scheme.

Where can I find a risk assessment covering Coronavirus?

Example risk assessments can be found in our Covid-19 hub under maintaining and re-opening business operations. You need to carry out a specific risk assessment for your operations. Once this has been completed, you are expected to share the results of the risk assessment with your workforce. In England, if possible, you should consider publishing the results on your website (it is expected that all employers with over 50 workers will do so). Additionally, you need to display the completed “Staying COVID-19 Secure in 2020” poster illustrating your premises are Covid-19 secure.

What do I need to do to ensure my employees can work safely?

You are required to conduct a Coronavirus (Covid-19) risk assessment(s) covering risks to the workforce and others who could be affected by Covid-19. The risk of Covid-19 must be adequately controlled and communicated to the workforce and others.  If you employ five or more people you have a legal duty to record the significant findings of your risk assessment. If your company has been closed or working at reduced capacity then you should assess the risks to your staff and other persons affected by your work before restarting your operations. Your assessment might include checking that the buildings are safe and that work equipment and services are safely switched back on and commissioned. You may also need to consider a return to work health questionnaire for your employees.

Your existing risk assessments should be reviewed in light of this new risk and suitable control measures implemented, dependent on your industry. We have sector specific checklists that will help with carrying out your risk assessment review and in meeting the UK Government sector guidance. For advice to businesses in other nations of the UK please see guidance set by the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government.

What are the rules about mandatory face coverings?

The law originally applied to transport and shops but now other premises are included. More details of how the law applies in England, Scotland and Wales and to specific business premises are contained in the relevant regulations and guidance. Further Government guidance is available by clicking the links below:

 England Scotland Wales

What should I do if an employee at work begins to show COVID-19 Symptoms?

If a worker develops symptoms, they should be sent home and request a free Covid-19 test through the relevant testing regime i.e.  test and trace (England); test and protect (Scotland) and test, trace, protect (Wales). 

The employee should self-isolate until they receive further advice (i.e. confirmation of a negative or positive test result) from the test and trace regime. The employer should sanitise the workplace following government guidance. 

Where more than one infected employee is confirmed as having Covid-19 within the working environment and within the space of two weeks then local Public Health Protection Teams for EnglandScotland or Wales (as applicable) are informed in order that potential outbreaks can be managed

What is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme?

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was announced on Friday 20th March. 

It reimburses employers a proportion of wages for employees they have to lay off temporarily due to business conditions caused by the Coronavirus. The maximum wages covered by the scheme are £2,500 per month. 

Changes to the Scheme came into effect as from 1st July. Please register for free access to MentorLive for further detail.

What is flexible furlough?

The Job Retention Scheme was changed from 1st July. From that date, employees who have previously been placed on furlough can work any number of part-time hours for their employer and be put on furlough for the remainder of their normal working hours.

Employers must pay employees their normal rate of pay for the hours they work but can claim under the Job Retention Scheme for the hours the employee is on furlough.

What other changes to the scheme are happening?

Since 1st August, the amounts employers can claim under the Job Retention Scheme have been progressively reducing until the scheme closes on 31st October.

  • Employers can no longer claim employer national insurance contributions and minimum auto-enrolment pension contributions
  • From 1st October, the amount of pay that can be claimed reduced to 60% of normal earnings

Importantly, employers must maintain wages paid to employees at a minimum of 80% of normal earnings. 

How is pay calculated?

For employees with a salary or regular pay, it's based on gross salary in their last pay period prior to 19th March.

For employees on variable pay or zero hours contracts, it's based on the greater of:

•             The same month's pay from last year; or
•             Average monthly earnings from the 2019-2020 tax year.

Does the 80% grant cover commission and bonus payments? 

Discretionary bonus, commission and non-cash payments are excluded.

However, the claim can include “any regular payments you are obliged to pay your employees”. Government guidance states that this includes “past overtime”, fees and compulsory commission payments. 

What if 80% of pay takes pay below the National Minimum Wage / National Living Wage?

The government has confirmed that the NMW / NLW does not apply to furloughed workers.

There is some work to do and I would like to rotate it among the workforce - can I do this?

Under the Flexible Furlough scheme, you can continue to rotate periods of furlough and periods of work among your employees and there is no longer a minimum period you can place an employee on furlough (under the scheme that applied until 30th June, there was a 3 week minimum furlough period).

Take care that you don't place more employees on furlough at any one time than the maximum number you claimed for prior to 30th June.

Is there a qualifying length of service to be eligible for the scheme?

No. But to be eligible, the employee must have been on the payroll on 19 March 2020.  If they were hired later, they are not eligible.  Anybody who was on the payroll on 28 Feb and has since been made redundant can be rehired and put on the scheme.

From 1st July, only employees who have previously been furloughed, or who are returning from long-term statutory family-related leave, are eligible to be furloughed.

Can an employee still take annual leave during a furlough period? 

Government guidance has confirmed that employees can take annual leave during furlough. If an employer wants to require employees to take annual leave during a furlough period, they can do so, provided that the employer gives the required notice. 

The employee should be paid normal salary for holidays taken during the furlough period. The furlough grant will only cover 80% of normal salary and employers will be obliged to fund the additional payment. 

What if employees have been unable to take their full annual leave entitlement by the end of the year?

On 27th March the Government amended the Working Time Regulation to allow carry forward of up to four weeks accrued holiday leave. This will allow leave to be taken sometime in the following two years but only where the holiday leave was not taken in this current holiday year as a result of the effects of coronavirus on the worker, the employer or the wider economy or society.

Can I make redundancies whilst employees are furloughed?

Yes.  Although the purpose of the scheme is to avoid redundancies, this might be unavoidable for some businesses and there is no rule to say an employer cannot carry out redundancies whilst employees are also furloughed.   

Please note - if an employer is proposing to dismiss 20 or more employees within a 90 day period - collective redundancy consultation obligations will apply.  This includes having to consult for a minimum of 30 days (or 45 days if dismissing 100 or more employees) and to elect appropriate employee representatives or consult with any recognised trade union. 

Employers should take advice before seeking to carry out redundancies.

Do I need to keep any evidence that employees agreed to be furloughed?

Once the employee has agreed to be furloughed, employers should send a furlough confirmation letter to the employee (this can also be emailed).

This letter should confirm that agreement has been reached and outline the specific terms, for example:

  • date of the change to furlough status
  • how long the furlough period will last (or approximate period if unsure)
  • details of working hours where flexible furlough is introduced
  • what the payment arrangements are

 A record of this communication must be kept for 5 years.

What should I do if the Job Retention Scheme ends but there is insufficient work available for employees?

Before the Job Retention Scheme comes to an end, employers should assess their circumstances and decide whether or not employees are able to return to their duties. If not, it may be necessary to consider making redundancies.   

Please seek legal advice if you find yourself in this situation.

Can I claim for employees who transferred from another business?

Employees of a business which transferred after 28th February 2020 are eligible for the scheme, if either the TUPE or PAYE business succession rules apply.   

Where can I find further information?

Further details of all the support available to businesses are here.

What evidence of sickness does an employee need to give?

An employee may self-certify as sick for the first seven days of sickness.

After seven days, for sickness due to coronavirus, employees may use a new, online service to obtain an electronic “coronavirus isolation note” which they can email to their employer. This acts like a “fit note”.

The “coronavirus isolation note” can also be used by an employee who has been advised to self-isolate due to a member of their household having coronavirus symptoms.

Should I pay a worker who self-isolates?

From 13th March SSP is payable from the first day an employee self-isolates, for the full period of time off, if the employee is advised to self-isolate by following government guidance.  This includes those advised to self-isolate because someone in their household has symptoms. But it does not include employees who are in a period of quarantine following return from abroad.

It may be possible for workers who are self-isolating as a precaution to work from home and receive their normal pay.

Do we need to report Covid-19 under RIDDOR?

The Health and Safety Executive gives guidance on RIDDOR reporting of COVID-19. In summary the guidance states;

“You should only make a report under RIDDOR when one of the following circumstances applies:

  • an accident or incident at work has, or could have, led to the release or escape of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). This must be reported as a dangerous occurrence
  • a person at work (a worker) has been diagnosed as having COVID-19 attributed to an occupational exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a case of disease
  • a worker dies as a result of occupational exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a work-related death due to exposure to a biological agent.”

It is useful to understand non-reportable examples:-

  • When COVID-19 is suspected but not confirmed
  • When COVID-19 has been verified by a registered medical practitioner but it was not contracted via work-related exposure or there is no reasonable evidence that it was contracted at work.
  • A social care worker is providing treatment or care to a patient or service user who is not known to be COVID-19 positive, but the patient or service user subsequently tests positive.

As you can see deciding on whether an event is reportable or not can be complex, relying on reasonable evidence on whether this is an occupational exposure or not. We would always advise that you consult with the Mentor H&S service.

What measures could I take to ensure social/physical distancing when work commences again?

Some of the measures you can put in place to maintain social/physical distancing include:

  • Using floor tape or paint to mark work areas.
  • Providing signage to remind people to keep a 2m distance.
  • Having people working side-by-side rather than face-to-face.
  • limiting movement of people:
    • rotating between jobs and equipment
    • using lifts and work vehicles
    • in high-traffic areas like corridors, turnstiles and walkways
    • allowing only essential trips within buildings and between sites

Be aware however that in the UK some rules about social distancing may be different in each of the devolved nations. You should check the public health guidance for the country you are in:

Wales England Scotland

What should I do if a worker has had coronavirus but is now over it?

UK Government advice is that if the worker has been symptomatic i.e. showed symptoms of Covid-19 and has been off-work, then they may end their self-isolation after 10 days. The 10-day period starts from the day when they first became ill.

If they live with others, then all their household members who remain well may end their household-isolation after 14 days. The 14-day period starts from the day illness began in the first person to become ill. Fourteen days is the incubation period for coronavirus (COVID-19); people who remain well after 14 days are unlikely to be infectious and can return to work. For advice to businesses in other nations of the UK please see guidance set by the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government.

Has there been any relaxation of fire safety law in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic?

No, fire safety law i.e. The Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 (Scotland) & The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (England and Wales) is still in force and there is currently no relaxation. It is the duty of the Responsible Person to ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic, suitable fire control measures remain in place.

If our building has been closed and we're in the process of reopening it, what preparations should we make in relation to fire?

It is important to ensure that all the fire safety measures in the building are in place. Carry out a review of the fire risk assessment, ensuring that your COVID-19 measures do not compromise fire safety. For example do you have enough fire wardens if you have split your shifts? Is the fire alarm and detection system maintenance up-to-date? Has the means of escape been compromised, etc?


How Mentor could help

If you are an existing Mentor customer, you can visit MentorLive where we will host a range of tools, templates and guidance to help you identify key priorities and take specific actions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on your people and your business. We will be regularly adding materials to MentorLive so please be sure to keep visiting.   

If you are not an existing Mentor customer and would like to talk about how we could help you and your business call us today on 0800 074 8151. Customers with hearing and speech impairments can contact us via Relay UK 18001 0800 970 9814.  Please note that Mentor's services incur a cost. 

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