With the World Health Organization declaring the coronavirus a global emergency and the U.K. government announcing that it expects the situation to worsen over the next few months, employers are rightly concerned about what they should be doing to protect their employees and their business.

The legal position

U.K. employers are subject to a number of health and safety obligations, including the duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees. They are also required to carry out risk assessments to identify what in the workplace could cause harm to employees’ health and safety and implement measures to avoid or reduce any risk that is identified. Employers with pregnant or disabled employees or employees with underlying medical conditions should carry out further assessments for those employees.

Practical steps

Measures that U.K. employers should consider taking immediately include:

  • Carrying out risk assessments (as mentioned above).
  • Requesting that employees do not to come into work if they are feeling unwell with cold- or flu-like symptoms and encouraging them to call NHS 111 for further advice. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and the advice of NHS 111, consider whether the employee may be able to work from home or should take sick leave.
  • Requesting that employees notify them if over the past 14 days they have travelled to any countries that are considered as high risk (which at the time of writing are: China, Hong Kong, Macao, Cambodia, Iran, northern Italy, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam) or have any plans to visit those countries.
  • Reviewing emergency procedures and ensuring all employees’ contact details and emergency contact details are up to date.
  • Implementing measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace such as providing hand sanitisers and tissues to employees and reminding them to wash their hands frequently.
  • Considering flexible working arrangements, including permitting employees to work from home if reasonably practicable.
  • Following the U.K. government’s travel guidance and considering limiting any non-essential business travel even to areas not listed as high risk.
  • Ensuring that sickness absence and sick pay procedures are aligned with the latest advice from the U.K. government and legal requirements. At the time of writing, the U.K.’s Health Secretary has announced that any employee who has been requested by a medical professional to self-isolate should be considered as sick “for employment purposes”.
  • Informing employees of the measures being implemented and keeping them regularly updated on the latest developments.
  • Being aware of the risk of discrimination, bullying or harassment in the workplace, in particular against individuals from, or who have recently travelled to, high-risk countries. In the event of any rumours or gossip about coronavirus in the workplace, ensure these are addressed promptly and remind employees of applicable policies on discrimination, bullying and harassment.