The inevitable has happened. Coronavirus has arrived in London with the first patient being diagnosed yesterday. This brings the total number of those infected in the UK by COVID-19, the official name given to the coronavirus by the World Health Organisation, to 9.
In Brighton, where two GP surgeries have already closed because of the outbreak, schools have now instructed pupils to self-isolate. Health officials are reporting that the virus will continue to spread until it peaks in the summer. In other words, it is not going away any time soon.
London (along with other large towns and cities) is particularly vulnerable. Its international airports have already been identified as key entry points of coronavirus into the UK. With a large and densely packed population, wide reliance on public transport and a centre for international companies, doing nothing and hoping for the best is not an option for London-based employers.
Employers in London and around the UK, are now going to have to pay serious attention to this issue, if they have not already done so. All employers should now be considering what steps they are going to take to protect their employees. In particular, they should be thinking about how to minimise the exposure of their staff to the risk of coronavirus infection as well as the need to put contingency measures in place in case their workplace becomes infected.
So called Super-Spreader, Steve Walsh, has demonstrated the impact that one person can have in spreading the infection. Whilst the wish to hit the snow, especially this half-term, will prove irresistible to many, others may think twice given that Mr Walsh managed to infect up to eleven of his fellow skiers in the ski chalet he shared with them. When the skiers return to the office employers will need to hope that their employees are not bringing some unwelcome friends into work with them.
What steps should employers be considering?
All employers have both statutory and contractual obligations to maintain a safe place of work for their staff and these obligations apply to coronavirus as much as anything else. As a result, employers must actively consider what measures they should be taking to comply with their obligations towards their workforce. There are a number of practical steps that employers can take including the following:
- Establish who is going to co-ordinate the employer’s response to coronavirus. Inevitably in most organisations this will primarily fall to HR but senior managers should also be brought into the loop. This is particularly important for contingency planning and has the added benefit of demonstrating to staff that the issue is being dealt with seriously.
- Conduct a workplace assessment to determine the risk of coronavirus to the organisation. For example, international companies with an HQ in China will, in all likelihood, represent a higher risk profile than a small domestic employer based in Fulham. Such a risk assessment could also determine where employees have worked in previous months to determine whether there are any current risks to that worker and their colleagues.
- Keep up-to-date on news about coronavirus and circulate that news to staff. Social distancing, for example, has been recommended as a preventative measure with health advisers recommending individuals should keep at least a three-foot gap between themselves during a conversation to prevent the passing of any infections. For employers in London, where staff are particularly dependent on public travel networks, it might well be advisable to allow staff to commute outside of peak times.
- Ensure that staff are aware they should be seeking medical advice if they think they may have been infected. Make sure that they know to isolate themselves and call a medical helpline such as NHS 111 to reduce the risk of spreading any infection.
- Restricting travel to affected areas for work. If international trips are being planned then consideration should be given to cancelling these. Where a trip is business critical and cannot be postponed then the employer should be taking steps to protect that employee whilst they are travelling. Thought, for example, should be given to providing advice on how to avoid infection and the provision of counter measures such as antibacterial wipes, face masks, hand gel etc. Adequate insurance should also be put into place to cover for worst case contingencies. However, employers need to be alive to the fact that coronavirus infection may also occur closer to home as those in the ski chalet with Mr Walsh discovered to their cost! Placing restrictions on domestic business travel may therefore be wise.
- Ask staff to work from home if they have returned from an infected area and/or if they are displaying symptoms. Given the culture of presenteeism found in many modern workplaces, it is important to actively encourage staff to stay at home if there is any risk of infection, and to rest if they are feeling unwell. That said, if the nature of an employer’s work means office-based work is preferable, the employer will need to decide how to respond if an employee demands to work from home until the crisis is over, even though their risk of infection may be low. Setting a precedent in such situations may not be where an employer wants to go.
- Ask staff to notify you if they (or even members of their family) are intending to travel for holiday or work-related reasons to affected areas.
- Undertake a risk assessment with staff just before their planned return date to the office to ascertain if they have been exposed to the virus and whether they are displaying any symptoms. HR will, undoubtedly, need to ask employees why they think they might be affected to ascertain if there is a genuine risk. Such enquiries may reveal, for example, that they or family members have just returned from a badly infected area.
- Organisations with a high-risk profile should consider issuing staff with FAQs on the virus and how to prevent its spread or directing them to relevant public health sites.
- Having a plan in place should an employee become affected is essential. Isolation is key to minimizing the spread of coronavirus so employees should be made aware that they should not be coming into the office if they are displaying symptoms. In Ireland the suspected infection of a member of staff led to a company shutting its offices; although the employee was later found to be free of infection, it demonstrated how seriously the employer was taking the matter.
- If an individual member of staff is infected, employers will need to decide how to communicate this to other staff and implement a plan to safeguard the health of their colleagues. Medical advice should be sought at the earliest opportunity and followed carefully. Once the employee feels they have recovered, confirmation from a doctor or OH should be sought prior to their return to work to ensure that they no longer pose a risk to other members of staff.
Taking the above steps is not only crucial from a staff welfare and operational perspective, but is also important to an employer’s reputation. If an organisation has given no or limited thought to putting proper safeguards being in place, it will not be looked at favourably by its employees or their families if someone become infected with coronavirus on their watch.
If you require any assistance on these or other employment issues then please do not hesitate to contact Kevin McCavish, Partner and Head of Shoosmiths’ London and Thames Valley Employment Team, on 03700 868802 or [email protected]