In this edition, we review some of the strategic and practical steps that employers can take in safeguarding employee health, maintaining business resilience and minimising disruption.

Current situation and sources of information on COVID-19

The UK is currently in "containment phase" although this is very likely to move to the "delay phase" as efforts at containment have all but failed largely due to the import of the virus from Italy, which has decreed quarantine of 16 million people in northern Italy. London has the highest number of confirmed cases of coronavirus and future government guidance may vary across the regions of the UK (as it has in Italy). Events are moving quickly and we urge employers to keep their contingency planning under review.

Please refer to our guidance note on health and safety issues as well as our recent guidance for employers for handling workplace issues as a result of coronavirus. The latter includes guidance on when sick pay might be payable to staff as well as other frequently asked questions for employers in handling workplace issues related to coronavirus including recent advice by ACAS.

Click here for the latest government information and advice, and here for the latest NHS information.

Workforce separation

  1. Create two teams, A and B, and separate their work sphere entirely. Team A would work in the office whilst team B would work from home. The teams alternate on a periodic basis, for example weekly.
  2. During the changeover interval, deep cleaning takes place in an empty workplace.

Create shift patterns to avoid rush hour

  1. Potentially higher risk of contagion on crowded public transport 
  2. Create two teams, A and B, which are then split into working different "shifts". For example, team A would work from 7am to 1pm, whilst team B would work from 1pm to 7pm thereby avoiding rush hour commuting

Offer flexible working

  1. Encourage working from home. For example, Twitter strongly encouraged its 5000 global workforce not to come into the office, whilst Google's European headquarters in Dublin are empty as its staff of 8000 work from home to avoid spreading the virus. 
  2. Allow employees to commute outside of peak hours to avoid rush hour traffic.
  3. Allow employees to take annual leave.  

Avoid crowd gathering and advise against travel to affected areas

  1. Cancel large meetings or conferences, and replace them with virtual solutions.
  2. Advise staff against travelling, whether for non-critical business or personal reasons, to affected areas as defined under the Gov guidance.

Office closure 

  1. Full office closure may be required if a known case of coronavirus among staff is discovered. Deep cleaning would take place during the closure. Be aware that disclosing the identity of the person with coronavirus to the wider office may breach data protection legislation – any such disclosure should be reasonable and proportionate (e.g. where it is necessary to identify other employees who may have come into contact with the person carrying the virus).
  2. Trial IT systems for remote working in advance of any potential office closure. Appropriate training is another area employers may wish to consider to make sure that staff are ready to working remotely in the event of full closure.

Frequent communication

  1. Set up a team to deal monitor information and guidance regarding the virus and to handle communications to employees.
  2. Update staff with information and guidance, whether from the government, the NHS or otherwise, and keep staff informed about the virus.

Legal update and potential issues on sick pay

  1. The government has announced that statutory sick pay (SSP) will be available from day one of absence when self-isolating (instead of day four) under emergency legislation which will be introduced to fight coronavirus. More details have yet to emerge. We will keep you up to date with this legislation.
  2. Employers should review their sickness absence policy, either in their contracts of employment and/or in the staff handbook. Consider whether there is an enhanced sick pay provision, and whether this is contractual or discretionary.  
  3. Some companies are choosing to enhance their SSP in the event of self-isolation to encourage appropriate behaviour.
  4. Employers may wish consider advising employees not to undertake personal travel to high risk areas. Although this may seem a drastic measure in normal times, it could be justified in the current crisis. Beware of potential indirect discrimination issues here – employers may be able to argue that such actions can be objectively justified – each case will need to be looked at on its own merits. 
  5. If an employee does travel to high risk areas against employer advice and has to self-isolate upon return, the employer may be justified in withholding any enhanced sick pay (i.e. sick pay above SSP).  However, employers should check that this approach does not cut across any contractual sick pay policy.   Again there may be an indirect discrimination issue here and we encourage employers to take legal advice. 

We will keep you informed of further updates as the situation progresses.