Latest News from BPCA

05 February 2020

Coronavirus: advice for employers

Cases of Wuhan novel coronavirus have been confirmed in a number of countries other than China including Thailand, Singapore, Japan, the USA, Canada and France.

The first cases of the coronavirus have also now been confirmed in the UK, so are there any measures employers should be taking to keep their workforce safe?

coronavirus-hr-advice-bpca

What is coronavirus?

Although not well known, the coronavirus is actually a common type of virus across the world, which usually cause disease in animals.

Other strains of coronavirus have made the jump to humans and produce common cold-like symptoms, as well as fever, a cough and difficulty breathing.

Other strains are more severe, such as Mers and Sars, which you may have heard of. 

What you've been hearing about in the news recently is the Wuhan novel coronavirus, a new strain of the virus named for the place it was initially identified; Wuhan, China.

Wuhan novel coronavirus

At the time of writing there have been an estimated 24,324 people infected with the Wuhan strain of the virus.

There have been a number of deaths and severe cases in China, although it is reported that symptoms are mild in the majority of cases and the deaths occurred where the person had a pre-existing illness or condition.

What should employers do?

There have been two confirmed cases in the UK, so there's absolutely no cause for panic. 

However, it's always important for employers to consider what they can do to protect their business and their workforce from the virus, particularly if the threat escalates.

Employers should issue clear guidance to employees who have recently travelled to China or who have been in contact with someone who has.

You should also consider putting in place a flu pandemic or infectious diseases contingency plan that addresses business continuity in the event that the situation worsens.

Even if this situation doesn't currently affect your business, it's good practice to have contingency plans regardless. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If an employee has symptoms associated with the coronavirus, or has been in contact with an infected person, or someone who has recently travelled to China, should they be instructed not to come to work?
  • Do you have a duty to close your workplace during a flu pandemic or an infectious disease outbreak to prevent the spread of viruses such as the coronavirus?
  • Do you have a duty to take special measures to protect those employees who are most at risk if they are exposed to the coronavirus?

If you or an employee have travelled to Wuhan or Hubei Province in China (or another significantly affected area) in the last two weeks, or have been in close contact with someone who has and feel unwell, call NHS 111 for advice now.

Public Health England defines close contact as being within two meters of someone for 15 minutes or more or sharing a room for a prolonged period.

Even if this situation doesn't currently affect your business, it's good practice to have contingency plans regardless.

Precautionary suspensions and annual leave

Whilst organisations owe a duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety, there is currently no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension of non-symptomatic employees returning from holiday or work in an area known to have experienced incidences of Coronavirus.

Additionally, third party pressure from colleagues should not be regarded as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension.

Where a returning employee appears to have possible symptoms, they should be referred to their GP and matters taken from there.

If the GP determines that they are unfit for work then they should be treated as off sick as per normal organisational procedure.

However, colleagues who have had contact with the symptomatic employee should be made aware of the symptoms and advised to contact their GP.

If the GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but you are still concerned, then you may consider other options, such as asking the employee to work from home in self-quarantine where possible, or briefly suspending them on precautionary grounds.

Where an organisation does choose to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives the employer a right to suspend without pay for this reason. Such a suspension should not be considered a ‘medical suspension’.

Employees may wish to cancel their holiday plans at short notice if they were planning to visit affected areas and this may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed.

These requests should be granted where possible, otherwise employees might feel pressured to risk taking the holiday as originally planned.

Preventing the spread

coronavirus-hr-advice-bpca 2

The NHS is asking anyone returning from Wuhan or Hubei Province to “self-quarantine” themselves for two weeks, that is stay away from work and other busy places and take care interacting with others.

Do NOT go straight to a doctor’s surgery or hospital as, if you have the virus, you risk spreading it to others.

Hand hygiene is the first line of defence in preventing the spread of viruses. Wash them frequently with soap and water, or hand sanitising gel.

If visiting hospitals, use the sanitising gel stations provided at the entrances and exits to all wards.

You can also take the following precautions:

  • Always wash your hands before you eat
  • Be especially careful in busy airports and other public transport systems about touching things and then touching your face
  • Carry disposable tissues with you, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and dispose of the tissue carefully (catch it, bin it, kill it)
  • Do not share snacks from packets or bowls that others are dipping their fingers into
  • Avoid shaking hands or cheek kissing if you suspect viruses are circulating
  • Regularly clean, not just your hands, but commonly used surfaces and devices you touch or handle.

The virus is especially risky to those who are very young, elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions, so bear that in mind. 

The UK Government has also advised against "all but essential travel" to China. So if you planned on sending employees to affected areas, switch those important international business meetings to Skype calls! 

You can read more about Coronavirus and the UK Government's advice on the Public Health England website

Source: Online

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