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. 

What government support is available to businesses where there is no work for employees to do?

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

It aims to support employees who would otherwise have been laid off during the Coronavirus crisis.

It will reimburse employers up to 80% of wages for employees they have to lay off temporarily due to the business conditions caused by the Coronavirus. There is a cap on wages of £2,500 per month.

Details of the scheme are being finalised - these answers are based on current information.

What businesses can apply?

All businesses can apply. The scheme will be particularly relevant to businesses in the sectors ordered to close (especially the hospitality and leisure sectors) but is available to all sectors, including those that voluntarily close or have to reduce operations due to lack of demand. 

Is it effective immediately?

Yes, and it's also backdated to 1st March. Employers who have temporarily laid employees off since 1st March should consider whether their employees could benefit.

How will employees receive their money?

They will receive wages through employers' normal payroll arrangements, and these will be subject to the usual deductions. The employer is reimbursed via HMRC.

Is it a loan?

No. it is a grant to enable wages to be paid by the employer.

How quickly will grants be available?

Grants should be available “within weeks” and the scheme will be up and running by the end of April. HMRC has to design the portal, and this is expected to take a few weeks.

What if we can't afford to pay our people until grants come through?

The government has made clear that the intention of the scheme is to save jobs and ensure employees retain an income - so businesses should investigate other sources of finance to bridge the gap until grants come through.

Zero interest loans are available through the Business Interruption Loan Scheme. VAT has also been deferred and grants are available for certain sectors, which should help with cashflow.

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

Do I just pay employees 80% of their normal pay?

Under the scheme, the employer remains liable to pay 100% of wages, with 80% reimbursed by the government. This is because the employer retains the employment relationship with the employee and reducing wages is a change to the contract.

If an employer cannot afford to make up the difference it may be possible to renegotiate the employment contract to allow for a temporary reduction of pay to 80%. Employers should take advice before seeking to impose such a reduction.

What are the symptoms of Coronavirus?

The symptoms of Coronavirus are:

  • A cough
  • High temperature
  • Shortage of breath

Further NHS guidance is available here:

What is the government advice?

People who display either or both of the following symptoms should self-isolate and not come into a workplace for 7 days. The symptoms are:

  • a new continuous cough
  • a high temperature

People who share the same household with someone who has the symptoms described above should self-isolate and not come into the workplace for 14 days. If they develop the symptoms during the 14 day isolation, they should remain at home for 7 days.

Everyone should practise “social distancing” - meaning they should avoid non-essential use of public transport; avoid rush hour public transport and work from home where possible.

People at “increased risk” should take particular care in following social distancing measures. This group includes

  • those aged 70 or older
  • pregnant women
  • those with an underlying medical condition (defined as qualifying for a free winter flu jab)

Note that additional isolation measures are likely to come into effect for this “increased risk” group - so employers should check which of their staff fall into this group and consider setting up home working arrangements if at all possible.

Full details are here:

What is “self-isolation”?

“Self-isolation” involves an individual remaining at home and away from work, public areas and other people to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

Further government guidance is available here.

What is “social distancing”?

“Social distancing” means limiting close contact with other people. Staying at least 2 metres apart from others is recommended, and large group gatherings should be avoided.

In a work context, measures might include working from home all or part of the time; holding Skype meetings rather than face-to-face; avoiding public transport at busy times.

Further government guidance is available here.

What about school closures?

The Government has ordered schools to close after Friday 20th March. Schools should remain open for children of key workers and for vulnerable children.

Who qualifies as a “key worker”?

The government has published a list of key worker job roles. This applies to England and the position in Scotland and Wales may differ. Details are here.

The aim is that key workers will be able to continue to send their children to school and so should not require them to stay away from work for childcare.

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.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/online-isolation-notes-launched-providing-proof-of-coronavirus-absence-from-work

What health & safety duties do I have as an employer?

Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff, so far as is reasonably practicable. Pregnant workers and those with disabilities have particular protection.

Potential exposure to coronavirus is clearly a risk which employers must take into account and this would particularly apply when dealing with a worker with an existing medical condition. 

Our advice is to take a risk-based approach, Areas you might consider include:

  • Identify any workers with particular vulnerabilities (in particular those with pre-existing respiratory conditions); these people might need special protection.  
  • Identify any workers who have recently returned from, or who are about to return from, any of the areas listed in the government guidance. These workers might need to be kept away from the workplace, at least until they have received advice from NHS 111.  
  • Consider government guidance.  
  • Consider what the work involves. If the work involves close personal contact with other people, there will be a higher risk of transmitting the virus than if it involves working alone, so you might take a more cautious approach.    

What do I do about international business travel?

The Foreign Office has issued travel advice, which businesses should follow. This changes frequently.

Bearing in mind the possibility of further areas being declared “high risk” in future, employers need to consider whether exposing workers to potential risk can be justified and the possibility of workers returning from abroad needing to self-isolate, or even being unable to return home. Even if it looks safe to travel, it may be best to postpone some business travel to avoid these risks.    

What should employers do if an employee who has returned from a high risk area comes into work?

Government guidance recommends a 14 day quarantine period, which means “remaining at home for 14 days after arriving home and not going to work, school or public areas”. So, to protect others, and to comply with government guidance, employers should send the employee home.

Should I pay a worker who is in quarantine / self-isolation?

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.

There is now an online “isolation note” scheme which allows employees to provide the appropriate evidence electronically.

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

What if an employee is ill with coronavirus?

On 11th March, the Chancellor announced that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is now payable from the first day of sickness absence. The government will refund the cost of up to 14 days' SSP for each employee off sick due to coronavirus to SMEs with up to 250 employees.

It will also be possible for an employee to obtain a sickness certification note from NHS111 - although it may not be possible for the employee to file a Fit Note within the usual time frames. 

The local public health authority may be contacting you and you may need to pass on information about people the employee has been in contact with.

What if a worker can't get home from a high risk area?

If a worker is delayed getting back to work after a holiday, employers don't have to pay the worker for the additional days they are absent from work (unless the worker is unwell). This would be unpaid leave.

Employers could arrange with the worker for the extra time off to be taken as part of their paid annual holiday entitlement (to avoid them losing pay) but this would be by mutual agreement. Employers don't have to agree to this, and of course you may not be able to do so if the worker has used up all of their annual holiday entitlement.

If it's a business trip and the return is delayed, then the employer would have to pay normal pay.

What if other workers refuse to work alongside workers they feel might have the virus?  

Employers should refer the other employees to the government guidance.  

And employers should ensure no worker is subject to racial discrimination or harassment.    

What if a worker refuses to attend work?  

If a worker refuses to attend work, but is not ill or self-isolating based on government guidance, you should:  

  • Ensure you know all the facts - is the employee pregnant, or particularly vulnerable, for example?
  • If there is an issue, take advice;
  • Otherwise, deal with the matter in the same way as you would deal with unauthorised absence, through the disciplinary procedure.    

How do I ensure business continuity?  

It is now clear that employers should prepare for a significant outbreak of coronavirus leading to greater numbers taking time off sick or self-isolating in accordance with government guidance.

Ensure you can contact staff and that their details are up-to-date. Mobile numbers are ideal for getting messages out quickly. 

  • Consider which staff can work from home (this will include staff who are not ill but who have been advised to self-isolate).  
  • Be aware that staff may need to take time off at short notice to support dependants (for example, due to school closures). There is a statutory right to take Time Off for Dependants (it's in your Employee Handbook). Ensure staff understand how they exercise this right.   
  • If there is no work for staff or if you have to temporarily close the business, check your employment contracts to see if you can reduce working hours at short notice.  Your employment contracts may reserve the right to impose temporary lay-off or short-time working. See our factsheet here
  • If you have to close business premises (as a temporary measure) and have no contractual facility to lay people off or impose short-time working, you should take advice on restructuring and redundancy.   

How do we communicate to members of the public, contractors, visitors etc that if they're experiencing any symptoms or have returned from any specified locations - they should not be entering the premises?

The NHS has produced a poster that you can display in your premises to remind people of their responsibilities.

Are my current control measures enough?

You are required under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to conduct suitable and sufficient risk assessments covering risk to employees who are at work and also risks to non-employees arising from your operations. These risks then must be planned, organised, controlled, monitored and reviewed. For those with more than 5 employees, these should be written, recorded and communicated. If you already have risk assessments in place, these should be reviewed in light of this new risk and suitable control measures implemented, dependent on your industry. 

From what is known of the virus, it is most likely to happen when there is close contact (within 2 metres or less) with an infected person with the risk increasing the longer someone has close contact with an infected person. As such, you may want to consider, limiting numbers of people at gatherings / meeting, “social distancing” and policies such as “no shaking hands”. You may also wish to more stringent controls on any activities which require sharing of equipment such as phones, keyboards, hot desking etc. 

I have the NHS poster displayed in my premises, is there anything else I should do?

This should be reviewed as part of your risk assessment. However, you may want to consider introducing a 'no shaking hands policy' and have hand sanitiser readily available throughout the building. It may be good practice at this time to ensure that you have a list of all visitors, contractors or temporary staff working on your site, and their contact details in order that you can notify them if any staff or visitors on your premises has been tested positive of the virus. These records must be stored in line with GDPR regulations.  

Do I need we need policies and procedures?

You may wish to create a policy or procedure to help address the actions to be taken should a member of the team, visitor etc. begin showing symptoms or potentially be diagnosed as suffering with Coronavirus. These actions may include allowing certain team members at risk to work from home, providing appropriate additional PPE/RPE on top of your standard provisions, creating a process for deep cleaning and sanitising your property surfaces and equipment following any confirmed cases and closing the business temporarily while this takes place. 

Should I issue my staff with masks?

The HSE have advised as follows:

Employees are not recommended to wear facemasks (also known as surgical masks or respirators) to protect against the virus. Facemasks are only recommended to be worn by symptomatic individuals (advised by a healthcare worker) to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people.

PHE and PHA recommend that the best way to reduce any risk of infection is good hygiene and avoiding direct or close contact (closer than 2 metres) with any potentially infected person.  

My staff are high risk, should I issue PPE / RPE?

This should be considered as part of your Risk Assessment for the tasks / activity they are undertaking. The Government has issued this guidance.

A member of staff has tested positive, do I need to notify anyone?

The government reclassified Covid- 19 as a notifiable disease and must be notified to the Public Health England. This will be completed by the GP. 

Someone who has attended my premises has suspected COVID- 19. Should I close?

The majority of tests return negative, no action is required until the outcome of the tests are known.

Should someone test positive then: The management team of the office or workplace will be contacted by the PHA local Health Protection Team to discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them and advise on any actions or precautions that should be taken.

Advice on cleaning of communal areas such as offices or toilets will be given by the local Health Protection Team at PHA and is outlined later in this document.” HSE. 

How can you protect yourselves from blame if you get it wrong?

Some decisions will be very difficult over the coming weeks and months, with potential life and death consequences if you get them wrong. You will be balancing these also against the disruption to business and commercial consequences of taking an approach that is too cautious.

Bear in mind the general principle in health and safety law, that if you can't do an operation safely, you should not do it at all. However, as a pandemic develops, this general principle will be tested probably to destruction in many cases.

If your business operations have wider health and safety critical implications, you may have to balance the safety of your staff against public safety (for example, if your operation is necessary for the supply of utilities, food, medicines, healthcare and communications).

To take an extreme example, imagine a health and safety risk assessment before sending your workers in to Chernobyl to fight the fire?

What if you get it wrong and hindsight is used to accuse you or your organisation of exposing people to unnecessary risks? In these cases, it will be invaluable to be able to point to a written risk assessment or similar document, showing that you have grappled with the issues and sought to balance them, taking into account factors on both sides before reaching a difficult decision that you will keep under review. Quite rightly, it will be harder to blame you in criminal law if you have conducted a balancing exercise and sought to achieve what is reasonably practicable, even if hindsight suggests otherwise.

Specialist health and safety legal advice can help you through the exercise, with the added bonus that in appropriate cases your draft plans, risk assessments and documents can be protected from ever needing to be disclosed by invoking the principle of legal privilege.

 

MentorLive

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 on Next Generation Text Service (NGTS) 18001.  Please note that Mentor's services incur a cost.