The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK has today grown to 36, with cases spread over a wide geographical area. The WHO (World Health Organisation) has raised its global risk assessment of COVID-19 from high to very high. As public concern around coronavirus grows, we are also seeing an increase in queries from employers asking for our advice on how they should deal with the various employment issues that may arise. Our employment team, which includes a team of specialist health employment lawyers, has put together a list of frequently asked questions.

Dealing with coronavirus in your workplace

Employers will frequently encounter workers who become unwell with cod/flu like symptoms. Currently, official advice suggests that unless one of two main risk factors are present, it should be assumed that any such illness is a common cold/flu and employers should carry on as normal. The main risk factors are:

  • Recent travel to a high-risk area
  • Recent close personal contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus

If someone with one of those risk factors becomes unwell in the workplace, they should be isolated and seek advice from NHS 111. You may want to deep clean the area and their workstation after they leave the premises.

If the laboratory tests confirm COVID-19 infection was present, you will be contacted by your local health protection team who will conduct a risk assessment and provide further advice. Workers who have had close contact with the affected worker will be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days.

Dealing with staff who need to self-isolate

Workers may be advised to self-isolate for 14 days if they have:

If a worker in self-isolation is symptomatic, then the employer should treat this as sick leave in the usual way.

There is some uncertainty around non-symptomatic workers in self-isolation. If the self-isolation is imposed because a worker’s dependant has become ill, the worker will almost certainly be able to take a period of unpaid dependent care leave. Strictly speaking, a non-symptomatic worker will not satisfy the requirements of statutory sick pay (SSP), but Acas is currently advising employers to treat self-isolation in the same way as sick leave. However, it is arguable that, if the worker is ready and willing to work and is merely unable to do so because they are following advice from Public Health England to self-isolate, then the period of self-isolation should be treated as akin to a suspension on health and safety grounds for which they ought to receive their usual pay.

A worker who should be in self-isolation wants to return to work before the 14 days are up – can we stop them doing so?

The employer should firstly consider whether it has an express right to require the employee to stay at home. Some workplaces have infectious diseases policies, which may deal with this point. If not, it may be technically possible for the employer to suspend the employee on health and safety grounds (because their return to work during the self-isolation period may increase the risk that other staff may be infected if they are carrying COVID-19). There is no general implied term requiring an employer to provide work, provided it continues to pay the employee's wages. It is therefore unlikely to be a breach of implied duties of the employment contract to suspend an employee on full pay, provided the matter is dealt with appropriately, proportionately and sensitively.