Coronavirus and employment Q & A

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The impact of the coronavirus outbreak is far-reaching. As well as the obvious implications for public health, the associated economic and international travel issues continue to play out. Although the constantly changing picture creates uncertainty, the UK government has begun issuing guidance.

So, how should employers and employees deal with the effects of the outbreak, particularly as most sickness policies are unlikely to account for circumstances involving self-isolation and quarantine expressly?

When should staff self-isolate?

If they have returned from a Category 1 country or area in the last 14 days, the government advises that they self-isolate (usually at home) to prevent the possible spread of infection, and make use of the 111 online coronavirus service.

However, if it is a Category 2 country or area the employee has returned from, the government advises that they “do not need to undertake any special measures”, but that they should self-isolate and telephone 111 if symptoms develop.

If the employee has not been to an affected area in the last 14 days, they should attend work as normal.

Currently, minimal cases have been reported outside the areas listed and so there is understood to be a very low risk of contact with anyone confirmed as having contracted coronavirus. However, if the employee is advised by a medical expert to self-isolate, they should do so.

As an organisation, you may also wish to issue your own guidance in respect of self-isolation, which could be more extensive than these requirements.

What if a member of staff does not want to come into work?

Employees may not want to attend work for fear of catching coronavirus.

Acas recommends that employers listen to their staff’s concerns, and try to resolve them in a way that protects staff health and safety.

If an employee still does not want to come to work, you could agree for them to use their annual leave or take unpaid leave, but you are not required to. If an employee refuses to come to work, you may consider taking disciplinary action.

Do we need to pay absent staff sick pay?

If an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus, their normal entitlements to sick leave and sick pay will apply.

If an employee or worker is medically advised to self-isolate, they will be entitled to statutory sick pay. If you usually offer contractual sick pay, Acas recommends that it is good practice to provide this.

If the employee is not sick, but you have asked them not to come to work, for example because they have just returned from an affected country, you should pay them as usual. The employee should also be paid as normal if they can work from home while self-isolating.

If an employee unexpectedly needs to take time off work to care for a dependent who has coronavirus, this absence does not need to be paid, but the employee’s employment contract or your workplace policies may prescribe otherwise.

Should we require fit notes from absent employees?

Under normal circumstances, employees must provide a fit note where they have taken sick leave and been unwell for more than seven days. With regard to coronavirus, the UK government is advising employers to use their discretion on the need to request such evidence, taking into account the 14-day self-isolation recommendation. Acas explains that employers may need to be flexible if evidence is required.