Employer’s obligations to Coronavirus?

10 February 2020 | Jatinder Tara

The World Health Organization (WHO) on 30th January 2020 declared that the coronavirus was a global public health emergency and in response to WHO declaration, the UK Chief Medical Officer have raised the risk to the public from low to moderate.

As at 28th January 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are advising against all but essential travel to the Hubei Province.  Public Health England have advised that if anyone has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days, they should stay indoors, avoid contact with other people as you would with other flu viruses and call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the city.

In the context of health and safety, we have prepared an article on “The effects of the coronavirus” dated 29th January.  As the virus appears to spreading, with 2 confirmed incidents in the UK as at 3 February 2020, the question is ‘what should UK employers do where employee maybe suspected of having the virus?’.

Employee showing symptoms of the coronavirus

The symptoms associated with the virus include, amongst other things, fever, cough and trouble breathing. Where employees attending work display any symptoms of the coronavirus, a welfare meeting should be arranged immediately with the employee to discuss matters. At the meeting, employer should not provide medical opinions about the effects and spread of the coronavirus but should make employee aware of the sickness absence and health and safety policies with an outcome that the employee needs to go home and contact their GP. Any colleagues who have been in contact with the individual should be made aware of contacting their GP if displaying the symptoms.

Employees should not feel that they will be penalized for failing to come to work thus the employer should make the employee aware of not returning to work until the symptoms have fully cleared and that they feel well enough to return.

Employees should be advised to follow the advice from the relevant public health body about how to obtain an initial assessment of their symptoms and further medical help.

Return to work after absence

Following sickness absence, where the employee feels able to return to work, but the employer has doubts if the employee has fully recovered, then a welfare meeting should be arranged before employee returns to work.  The purpose of the meeting is to discuss fitness to return; if there are concerns the employer should seek the employees consent in a prescribed form to contact his/her GP to confirm fitness to return back to work. This process should already be in the sickness absence policy.

In a situation where the GP does not certify the employee as unfit for work or employee has not been able to arrange an appointment with the GP following the 7 days self-certification for sickness absence under statutory sick pay provisions and the employee is insisting upon returning back to work, there may be grounds for briefly suspending the employee on health and safety grounds following a risk assessment. This suspension would be on full pay until independent medical clarity is obtained. Alternatively; the Employer may allow the employee to work from home. 

Some other factors to consider include:

Privacy Issues

Under Data Protection Act 2018 and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), employees have a right to expect that their personal information is kept confidential and is not disclosed throughout the workplace, including health status. On the other hand, employers are under legal obligations to ensure that the workplace is safe. The question of whether to reveal the names of employees who have symptoms of Coronavirus or who have been isolated or quarantined is a difficult one but prudent not to disclose any details without the employee’s written consent with an agreement over the wording of what information is to be disclosed.

Discrimination and Harassment

Employers are under an obligation to keep the workplace free from discrimination and harassment.  The Equality Act 2010 (EA) prohibits discrimination or harassment in employment based on certain protected characteristics, such as disability, race, ethnic or national origin.

The origins of Coronavirus are believed to be in Wuhan, China, with the virus is spreading quickly throughout mainland China and into Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. As a result, many people may assume that a person working in UK but from a South East Asia community either has Coronavirus or associates with others affected by Coronavirus.  Employers and employees should not make assumptions based on stereotypes and any complaints from employees in this context should be addressed via employer’s internal grievance procedures.

Simply reminding all employees of health and safety obligations of good hygiene practices within the workplace as our earlier article suggests would not amount to harassment or discrimination within EA.

The coronavirus situation changes from day to day and employers should remain vigilant about keeping up to date with the most recent updates from UK Government bodies. However, should this article raise any issues for you or your organisation please call us on 0333 240 7208 to speak to one of our advisers or contact us here.

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