Introduction

The daily news bulletins are full of horror stories about the rapid worldwide spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Travel restrictions, business and school closures, the first reported local deaths and panic buying at supermarkets are alarming and the news seems to be going from bad to worse. What started as a public health emergency has rapidly evolved to a potential economic crisis.

The Board of your organisation is worried and has asked for an urgent status update. The HR Director asks you to prepare a report for the CEO and Board on the people risks associated with COVID-19. You have identified two main areas of focus:

  1. Keeping your people safe; and
  2. Resource planning / business continuity.

Having assembled your team, including members from Operations, Finance, Communications and IT, you get to work. Given the rapidly changing landscape, getting up to date and having access to current, reliable information is critical.

You identify the websites listed at the end of this document as a good starting point. Next, you outline a communications plan for staff, contractors, suppliers and clients.

Workplace safety

To prepare a plan to meet your safety obligations, you apply a risk management framework. One way to do that is to ask the following questions about the risks posed by COVID-19.

What? Why? Where? Who? How?

What?

The novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness caused by a newly identified virus also known as COVID-19. The symptoms range from mild cough to pneumonia. Some people recover easily, while others may get very sick very quickly. There is no cure at the moment. There is evidence that it spreads from person to person. It was first reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. Its symptoms include fever, flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.

As of the date of writing, there have been 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3 deaths, in Australia. Worldwide, there have been more than 118,000 confirmed cases with more than 4,200 reported deaths. Many new cases continue to be reported worldwide, including from Iran, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Mongolia.

Government action

The World Health Organisation ("WHO") has recently upgraded the outbreak from a "public health emergency of international concern" to a "pandemic".

The Australian Government has activated the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). The plan identifies COVID-19 as a significant risk to Australia with the potential to cause high levels of morbidity and mortality and to cause social and economic disruption. The plan is in its initial action stage involving monitoring and investigating outbreaks as they occur and taking steps to minimise the impact. More recently, the Prime Minister has foreshadowed an economic stimulus package to help protect Australians and the local economy from the damaging economic consequences of COVID-19.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has issued a number of statements on COVID-19, including recommending travel restrictions on people coming to Australia from mainland China and that people who have visited mainland China or have been in contact with any confirmed COVID-19 case be isolated in their home upon return to Australia for 14 days after leaving China or being exposed to the confirmed case. Recommendations have also been made by the AHPPC to have the federal government advise Australians not to travel to China and Iran and that travel to other countries such as South Korea, Italy, Japan and Mongolia be considered to be high risk.

Why?

According to WHO, COVID-19 spreads in a similar way to influenza, ie. someone with the disease coughs or exhales releasing droplets of infected fluid which can fall on nearby surfaces and objects. In this way, other people could catch COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. If they are standing within one metre of a person with the virus, they can catch it by breathing in droplets coughed out or exhaled by the other person. While most people infected with the COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms and recover well, a small percentage go on to experience more serious illness and may require hospitalisation. Risk of serious illness increases with age and those with weakened immune systems or chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart or lung disease are also more vulnerable to serious illness.

Who?

Your plan will need to cover all workers in your organisation as well as visitors to your workplaces. Your initial focus should be on those who are at higher risk of transmitting or being exposed to the virus. The higher risk groups include those who have recently traveled to or transited through mainland China and Iran as well as South Korea, Italy, Japan, Mongolia, Thailand and Indonesia. Other high-risk categories are individuals who have been exposed to others with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Those categories of people in your organisation need to be "self-isolated" in their home for 14 days from the date they left China or other relevant country, or the date they were exposed to the confirmed COVID-19 case. Anyone in those categories should be directed to stay at home and not attend for work for the minimum quarantine period of 14 days. If they are able to work from home, then they should do so consistent with any working from home policy. If the employee cannot work from home and is not ill, then you will need to consider providing them with "special paid leave" for the period of their absence given that the direction not to attend work is the decision of the employer, not the individual.

For employees who display symptoms of the virus, you should direct them to seek medical attention immediately and to take sick leave. If they have no or inadequate sick leave available, you may agree they can take sick leave in advance, or they may choose to take other paid leave such as annual or long service leave, if available. Before they return to work, those employees should be asked to provide medical clearance from their treating medical practitioner. If they do not do so, you may consider directing them to see an independent medical practitioner for that purpose. This approach should apply not only to your employees, but also to contractors and visitors to your workplace, including clients.

Where?

Your plan will need to apply to all locations where your people work. Particular risks are likely to arise if you have workers on international travel, as well as those who might be exposed to large-scale events attended by many people. Your workplace may also extend to the homes of your staff members. You will need to be satisfied that those homes are safe and without risk to the health and safety of your employees before work commences. Any vehicles used by staff members during their employment can be a workplace too. You will therefore need to be satisfied that any such vehicle and its use by workers is safe and without risks to health. You may want to consider restricting all but essential travel and reminding workers at all times to comply with personal hygiene protocols, particularly around regular handwashing and sanitising and sneezing and coughing protocols.

How?

Physical wellbeing

As indicated above, your plan will need to carefully consider communication and consultation with staff and others attending your workplace. Consulting workers about health and safety matters is obligatory. It is a good idea to consider regular updates and putting signs around the workplace reminding people about relevant information, including where to get more information and personal hygiene protocols. Provision of hand sanitisers and the like should also be considered, as should putting in place protocols for cleaning workplace equipment that may be used by multiple people such as telephones, computers, other mobile communication devices as well as items such as keyboards, desks, tables, crockery and cutlery in canteens or kitchens, food containers and the like as well as bathroom and toilet fixtures and fittings.

You should review your working from home or flexible work policies to see if they need to be adjusted and to make sure they are fit for purpose. Remember to make it safe and easy for people NOT to come in. This may mean identifying groups who have an incentive not to report, like casuals who don't have sick pay or contractors engaged on a no-work no-pay basis. Consider whether it is good risk management to pay them in advance and give them confirmed shifts in 14 days' time, making reporting easier.

As outlined above, you will also need to consider the kinds of leave available to employees who may be affected by the virus including whether you need to provide special paid leave in cases where employees may be directed to work from home even though they are asymptomatic. Communication will be key and therefore it is vital that you include in your plan steps for consulting staff and communicating with them about action the organisation is taking to help ensure their safety at work, as well as giving them access to reliable information. Communication and consultation is also vital in keeping up to date with government action to determine how it might affect your organisation and its people.

Mental wellbeing

Your plan will also need to consider how you might provide support to help ensure the mental health and well-being of your workers. Given the high level of media reporting of the spread of the virus and the occasionally alarming newspaper headlines such as "virus could kill up to 100,000 Australians" AFR (3 March 2020), consideration should be given to reminding employees of any well-being programs in place in your organisation and services such as an Employee Assistance Program to help alleviate concerns, manage stress and reduce anxiety.

Other practical tips

  • Consider possible IT solutions, like video software options for meetings where there may be a risk for high-risk groups (eg recent travellers, those exposed to confirmed cases of the virus, aged, carer for someone ill/aged, or those with pre-existing serious health conditions)
  • Have tech support available for IT/other support, eg how to use video software and a checklist on security options
  • Identify casuals and others who may have financial reasons to work when sick and consider changing the financial incentives
  • Workplace notices on personal hygiene and greeting options other than the traditional handshake
  • Consider making flu shots available to staff to give them a sense of control over other possible illnesses that may be prevalent at this time of the year
  • Don't put out unwrapped lollies, salt or other food items in open bowls, and limit share plates or add servers and small plates if catering is provided
  • Stock up on toilet paper, as people may take it home (that is a joke!)

Discrimination

Some reports have emerged of people apparently of Asian appearance being discriminated against, harassed or vilified by others. Your plan should include reminders that COVID-19 is not racially based and that it is unlawful to discriminate against others based on their race or on characteristics attributed to people of that race. Failure to take reasonable steps to stop or prevent such regrettable behaviour may leave your organisation vulnerable to claims it is vicariously liable for any loss or damage suffered as a result.

Business Continuity and Workforce management planning

While COVID-19 started life as a health emergency, it seems to be rapidly developing into a worldwide economic crisis. Media reports suggest the virus may result in a dramatic decrease in economic activity around the world, including Australia.

If so, and if your business and its supply chains are adversely affected significantly, then your planning will need to consider not only work health safety obligations and related matters but also how you might address a significant downturn in business activity. Your resource planning might need to consider how you schedule your labour requirements. Do you need to reduce contingent or casual labour? Do you need to consider imposing leave arrangements or at least discussing them with employees with a view to taking accrued leave? Are you able to redeploy any parts of your workforce? As a last resort, you may need to consider the potential for stand downs if your employees cannot be gainfully employed.

For example, s524 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) allows an employer to stand down an employee without pay in certain circumstances for a period when the employee cannot usefully be employed because of, among other reasons, a stoppage of work for any cause for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible. Stand downs should only be considered as a last resort and specific advice should be sought before doing so.

The prospect may also arise of potential redundancies.

Other elements of your plan will also need to consider business continuity and emergency planning. For example, how can business continue if, due to the virus, large parts of your workforce are required to relocate or are not able to attend certain premises or parts of your business? How will you continue to operate if your supply chain is significantly impaired or breaks down?

Conclusion

Your draft plan is delivered. The CEO and Board are impressed. The plan is finalised, approved and implemented. Your new title is "Chief Crisis Officer".

COVID-19 is new, largely unknown, unpredictable and therefore very serious. Careful, considered and systematic planning will help you manage the people risks in your business and will stand you in good stead to deal with a rapidly-shifting COVID-19 landscape, as well as any future crisis that may emerge.