We have been inundated with calls from employers on the coronavirus/COVID-19 amidst rumours surrounding emergency legislation from the government.
We thought it would be useful to share with you some of the questions we have been asked, and our response. Please bear with us, we don’t have a definitive answer to everything and the responses below are based on our research, experience and as always, our pragmatic approach to a fast-moving situation!
Here are the list of questions. To find out the answers click on the questions below.
1. When is self-isolation recommend?
As the Coronavirus issue progresses the government is frequently updating their recommendations when it comes to self-isolation.
For the most up to date information on when it is appropiate or recommended to self-isolate please go to https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/coronavirus-covid-19-uk-government-response
2. Do I have to pay SSP from day one during self-isolation?
The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 come into effect from today and they render periods of self-isolation to avoid contamination or infection with the corona virus, as periods of sickness.
There is currently no legislation that makes SSP payable from day one during periods of self-isolation however this is anticipated in coming days.
The existing rules surrounding entitlement to SSP and authorisation for periods of absence (obtaining a sick note) still apply.
Employees can ‘self-certify’ their absence from work for the first 7 days of absence. From day 7 onwards they are required to provide a note from their GP or consultant. You should pay SSP for absences between 4 and 7 days (4 waiting days) due to self-isolation however we would recommend exercising discretion and paying SSP from day one.
We anticipate that there will be legislation in the coming days rendering SSP payable from day one.
In the budget released yesterday, the government announced plans to support businesses with less than 250 employees by paying SSP for the 14-day self-isolation period.
3. Can employees wear facemasks to work?
Employees are not recommended to wear facemasks and employers do not have to consent to them wearing them to work. They are not recommended as a way to protect against the virus.
Facemasks are only recommended to be worn by symptomatic individuals (advised by a healthcare worker) to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/guidance-for-employers-and-businesses-on-covid-19)
4. What do I do about staff returning from abroad?
You can’t reasonably force an individual to self-isolate or tell them they cannot come to work unless it is likely that they have come into contact with somebody with a confirmed case of COVID-19 or have come from a high risk country such as China or Italy.
If you wish to exclude somebody from the workplace due to legitimate concerns i.e. they have returned from China or Italy or have come into contact with somebody with the virus, you should first of all advise them to contact 111 to seek medical advice and pay them their normal pay for any period until they are advised to self-isolate. When in self-isolation, they should be paid SSP as outlined above. If they are not advised to self-isolate however you still don’t want them to attend work, then they are entitled to full pay.
5. Do I have to pay staff if I am forced to close the workplace?
If you are advised to close your workplace, this will result in a lay-off or short-time working situation and will not classify as self-isolation.
Unless you have an express right (a clause in your contract) to allow you to lay people off without pay, employees need to be paid full pay in the event of a workplace closure.
There is financial help available for businesses affected, more information on that here under ‘additional resources’: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-employees-employers-and-businesses
You may wish to exercise the right to force employees to take holiday during this period to minimise the cost implication. You are required to give the employee notice that is at least twice as long as the amount of time you request that they take. So, for example a day of enforced annual leave requires 2 days’ notice at least. (Unless there is another notice period stated in the contract of employment.)
You may also wish to consult with employees and come to an agreement with them over what the arrangement will be if you cannot afford to make payments during a period of workplace closure. We would advise being transparent with staff regarding decisions.
6. Can I stop an employee from coming to work?
If you want to prevent an employee from attending work, you need to firstly check your contract of employment with this person to see if you have the express right to suspend them. If there is no express right, we would advise that you seek legal advice, however, generally, the risk of breaching your health and safety obligations to your workforce may be greater than the risk of breaching an employee’s contract of employment by suspending them where you don’t have a right.
If you suspend an employee from coming to work, they will be entitled to full pay during any such period.
You must not act in a way that could be deemed to be discriminatory i.e. suspending people of a certain race or ethnicity.
7. Can I still request a fit note during a period of self-isolation?
We are getting a lot of questions surrounding what to pay employees between day 7 and day 14 when they are required to submit a ‘fit note’ to authorise their absence.
Our advice is to relax your rules around obtaining the correct authorisation for an absence during a period of self-isolation however if the person has tested positive for the virus or is receiving medical treatment and therefore has seen a medical professional, then it is reasonable to expect that they provide the correct documentation from day 14+.
NHS online have now gone live with a tool for employees to obtain an isolation note in the event that they are recommended to self isolate. For periods of isolation this should be accepted in lieu of a fit note. 111.nhs.uk/covid-19
8. Do I need to pay company sick pay for self-isolation?
You are entitled to follow your existing policy and rules on company sick pay. If you can afford to pay company sick pay then we would recommend that you do so however there is no obligation to without a fit note from the persons GP or consultant.
9. What shall I do if I have an employee that refuses to come to work?
Employees should only stay away from public places (self-isolate) if advised to by the 111 online coronavirus service or a medical professional.
Therefore, if an employee refuses to come to work with no basis for doing so, as there is currently no legislation in place, there is no obligation to pay them however we would urge that you take each case on its own merits and be consistent in your approach so not to discriminate unintentionally i.e. due to race, ethnicity or age.
Inform your staff of the symptoms of COVID-19 to reduce panic i.e. sneezing is not a known symptom of the virus. More information on symptoms can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/
Our advice is to take steps to acknowledge COVID-19 and communicate steps that you are taking to minimise the risks to staff. Further guidance on this can be found here: https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus
You could suggest that the employee uses annual leave or come to arrangement with them to take the absence as unpaid leave. Ensure that any such agreements are in writing.
10. Taking care of children or dependents in the event of school closure
We advise that you follow your policy on dependants leave here initially if it is for a short period of time.
If the employee is unable to attend work for a longer period we would advise first of all, thinking creatively as to how you could accommodate this and if you can afford to pay them, to do so.
Alternatively, you could request that they take annual leave.
If you do not have an existing homeworking policy and wish to accommodate homeworking, we would strongly suggest implementing a policy.
Get in touch with us if you would like to receive a copy of our homeworking policy.
12. Employees self-isolating who are seen ‘out and about’
If someone is self-isolating and you are paying them company sick pay or SSP accordingly, the purpose of this is to protect the spread of COVID-19 and they should not be socialising or spending time in public spaces.
If someone is reported to be not attending work however not self-isolating in other aspects of their life, we would recommend that you conduct further investigation into this and handle it as a disciplinary matter if necessary.
13. What to do if an employee or a member of the public becomes unwell and believe they have been exposed to COVID-19
If the person has not been to specified areas in the last 14 days, then normal practice should continue.
If someone becomes unwell in the workplace and has travelled to China or other affected countries, the unwell person should be removed to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people. If possible find a room or area where they can be isolated behind a closed door, such as a staff office. If it is possible to open a window, do so for ventilation.
The individual who is unwell should call NHS 111 from their mobile, or 999 if an emergency (if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk) and explain which country they have returned from in the last 14 days and outline their current symptoms.
Whilst they wait for advice from NHS 111 or an ambulance to arrive, they should remain at least 2 metres from other people. They should avoid touching people, surfaces and objects and be advised to cover their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they cough or sneeze and put the tissue in a bag or pocket then throw the tissue in the bin. If they don’t have any tissues available, they should cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow.
If they need to go to the bathroom whilst waiting for medical assistance, they should use a separate bathroom if available.
14. What to do if a member of staff or the public with suspected COVID-19 has recently been in your workplace
For contacts of a suspected case in the workplace, no restrictions or special control measures are required while laboratory test results for COVID19 are awaited. In particular, there is no need to close the workplace or send other staff home at this point. Most possible cases turn out to be negative. Therefore, until the outcome of test results is known there is no action that the workplace needs to take.
15. What to do if a member of staff or the public with confirmed COVID-19 has recently been in your workplace
According to gov.uk, closure of the workplace is not recommended.
The management team of the office or workplace will be contacted by the PHE local Health Protection Team to discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them and advise on any actions or precautions that should be taken.
A risk assessment of each setting will be undertaken by the Health Protection Team with the lead responsible person. Advice on the management of staff and members of the public will be based on this assessment.
The Health Protection Team will also be in contact with the case directly to advise on isolation and identifying other contacts and will be in touch with any contacts of the case to provide them with appropriate advice.
Advice on cleaning of communal areas such as offices or toilets will be given by the Health Protection Team.
16. When individuals in the workplace have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19
If a confirmed case is identified in your workplace, the local Health Protection Team will provide the relevant staff with advice. These staff include:
- any employee in close face-to-face or touching contact, talking with or being coughed on for any length of time while the employee was symptomatic
- anyone who has cleaned up any bodily fluids
- close friendship groups or workgroups
- any employee living in the same household as a confirmed case
Contacts are not considered cases and if they are well, they are very unlikely to have spread the infection to others:
- those who have had close contact will be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days from the last time they had contact with the confirmed case.
- they will be actively followed up by the Health Protection Team
- if they develop new symptoms or their existing symptoms worsen within their 14-day observation period they should call NHS 111 for reassessment
- if they become unwell with cough, fever or shortness of breath they will be tested for COVID-19
- if they are unwell at any time within their 14-day observation period and they test positive for COVID-19 they will become a confirmed case and will be treated for the infection
Staff who have not had close contact with the original confirmed case do not need to take any precautions and can continue to attend work.
17. Handling post, packages or food from affected areas
Employees should continue to follow existing risk assessments and safe systems of work. There is no perceived increase in risk for handling post or freight from specified areas.
18. Cleaning offices and public spaces where there are suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19
Coronavirus symptoms are similar to a flu-like illness and include cough, fever, or shortness of breath. Once symptomatic, all surfaces that the person has come into contact with must be cleaned including:
- all surfaces and objects which are visibly contaminated with body fluids
- all potentially contaminated high-contact areas such as toilets, door handles, telephones
Public areas where a symptomatic individual has passed through and spent minimal time in (such as corridors) but which are not visibly contaminated with body fluids do not need to be specially cleaned and disinfected.
If a person becomes ill in a shared space, these should be cleaned using disposable cloths and household detergents, according to current recommended workplace legislation and practice.
All information in this article was correct on the date of writing however we would recommend checking the following websites frequently for updates:
For advice on any specific issue please call us on 0114 3032300 or 0203 329 0280 or email [email protected]