News added on 03.02.2020

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Sickness and injury

Coronavirus-related sickness absence

As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread globally, it’s probably only a matter of time before some workers start to phone in sick with coronavirus-like symptoms. What is your position here?

The coronavirus is now starting to spread beyond its source in China, and it is estimated that it has so far infected more than 17,300 people globally, including two cases having been confirmed so far in the UK. The coronavirus has not yet been declared a pandemic virus, but it has now been categorised as a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organisation. The symptoms of the virus are fever and a cough that may progress to a severe pneumonia, causing shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Generally, it can cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people and those with long-term health conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Th UK government’s current guidance is that if anyone has travelled from China (but not Hong Kong) to the UK in the last 14 days and they develop the above symptoms, even if they’re minor, they should immediately stay indoors at home, avoid contact with other people, not go to work and call NHS 111. So, if any of your employees fall into this small category, you have to expect them not to come to work and to be signed off sick for up to two weeks, i.e. until 14 days after their return from China, if they have the symptoms.

As the virus continues to spread, you might start to have workers phoning in sick with “coronavirus-like” symptoms in circumstances where they haven’t recently travelled from China, but they could conceivably have caught the virus elsewhere. Of course, not every fever or cough is coronavirus but, without formal medical tests, it may soon become difficult to distinguish between those cases that are coronavirus and those that aren’t. With employees who may have contracted the virus and phone in sick, you should not encourage them to come in if they are ill but should instead advise them to stay at home until fully recovered. You owe a duty of care to your staff to protect them from risks of harm to their health and safety, and this includes the risks of harm from a highly contagious virus. So, advising potentially infected employees to stay at home when they’re ill will help prevent the virus being passed on to other staff. Such employees will then be entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP), or contractual/discretionary sick pay, in the normal way. Conversely, if you suspect that an employee is using the coronavirus as an excuse to skive off work by taking a “sickie”, investigate it as a potential disciplinary matter. You will, however, need evidence to support your suspicions which is sufficient to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the employee wasn’t genuinely ill.

If it reaches a point where some employees are afraid to attend work for fear of catching coronavirus, do be sensitive to genuine concerns, particularly in relation to those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems or who are pregnant. For these employees, consider trying to agree different working arrangements, such as working from home. Otherwise, an unreasonable refusal to work by an employee is a disciplinary offence; employees aren’t entitled to refuse to attend work on the basis of fear alone (unless there’s a clear health and safety risk).

Other measures you could take in due course to manage the risks in your workplace from coronavirus, include:

  • reviewing your business continuity plan - if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic virus, you have to be prepared to handle absence rates of 12% or more over the peak period of it (in addition to normal levels of staff absence) and any changed ways of working might last for many weeks
  • adopting basic precautionary measures in the workplace, such as encouraging good personal hygiene amongst staff, using hand sanitisers and frequently cleaning communal areas
  • opting for video-conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings
  • asking staff to observe a social distance of at least one metre
  • suspending non-essential business travel and work-related social events.

Although it’s unlikely you’ll have any cases now, if at a later stage any employees phone in sick with coronavirus-like symptoms, encourage them to stay at home whilst they’re ill, until they’ve fully recovered. Treat it like any other sickness absence and pay SSP (or other contractual/discretionary sick pay) in the normal way. Conversely, if you suspect an employee is taking a “sickie” and using the coronavirus as a convenient excuse, you can investigate it as a potential disciplinary matter, but you will need evidence to support your suspicions. Coronavirus hasn’t yet been categorised as a pandemic but that might happen in due course. So regularly monitor the situation, taking guidance from the  government.

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