Coronavirus | How to protect your workplace

Coronavirus is now a global pandemic, and the UK has introduced strict new measures to help tackle the outbreak.

As an employer, you’ll have lots of questions about how these changes affect your workplace and your staff.

Here’s what you need to know to manage the impact of COVID-19 on your business…

1. What is the virus?

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is a new type of respiratory virus that affects people’s breathing and lungs.

Experts think the virus started in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where workers contracted it from contact with animals.

The main symptoms include:

  • A dry cough.
  • A sore throat.
  • Tiredness.
  • A fever (high temperature).
  • Aches and pains.
  • Difficulty breathing (in severe cases).

The virus spreads through droplets in the air when someone coughs or sneezes.

People can catch it if they breathe in the droplets or brush surfaces that the droplets land on, and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes (scientists say we touch our face around 16 times an hour).

2. Should I pay staff who self-isolate (stay at home)?

Anyone who is under government advice to self-isolate is entitled to receive statutory sick pay (SSP), even if they do not have the virus or have any symptoms, as long as they meet the other normal SSP eligibility criteria.

The government has also announced that employees with coronavirus will get statutory sick pay (SSP) from their first day off work, not the fourth as is normally the case, where the first day of absence was on or after 13 March 2020.

3. Which of my employees should self-isolate?

If an employee has symptoms of the virus, they should self-isolate for 7 days. If a member of their household shows symptoms, then your employee needs to self-isolate for 14 days. 

Government guidance is that employees who are 70 or over should work from home where possible, along with those who are pregnant or have an underlying medical condition e.g. diabetes.

The NHS has also identified around 1.5 million people who are at a higher risk of severe illness if they catch coronavirus. These individuals have begun to receive letters explaining why they are at a higher risk, and asking them to stay at home under a ‘shielding’ measure for at least 12 weeks.

If you employ a high-risk individual, you must allow them to work from home if possible. And unless the government identifies your staff as ‘key workers’, you should try to enable the rest of your workforce to work from home, too.

If your employees need to remain at work, you should take all precautions to look after their health and safety.

4. Now the UK is in lockdown, which businesses must close?

If your business falls under one of the following categories, you must close until further notice:

  • Non-essential retail stores.
  • Libraries and community centres.
  • Communal places within parks.
  • Places of worship.
  • Places of leisure including boarding houses for commercial/leisure use, aside from permanent residents and buildings for key workers.

This list is not exhaustive and may change at short notice, so please check the government’s website for a full, up-to-date record of the types of businesses that need to close.

The government has also announced that people must not leave their home unless for one of the following reasons:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.
  • One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle—alone or with members of your household.
  • Any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.

5. What happens to my staff if I have to close my business?

The Government has announced the new ‘Job Retention Scheme’ which enable employees to receive at least a portion of their wages if they have to stay at home because you cannot provide them with any work. Please see below for more info.

6. What financial support is the government offering to employers?

To support workers who would otherwise be laid-off due to the outbreak, the government has introduced the ‘Job Retention Scheme’.

The scheme involves HMRC reimbursing you for up to 80% of your workers’ wage costs, with a cap of £2,500 per worker per month.

To access the scheme, you need to agree with employees that they will be designated as ‘furloughed workers’, and be on reduced pay, and submit their details through a new online HMRC portal. The first grants should be paid by the end of April 2020.

Any employee can be furloughed, so long as they’re on PAYE. But you cannot make employees work while they’re furloughed, even if they’re on short-time working.

The government has also set out a raft of other proposals to support businesses, such as loan schemes, VAT deferrals and a freeze on business rates. We’ll update you as soon as UK ministers announce more information on these measures. 

7. Can I stop my staff from travelling abroad?

What your employees do in their own time is largely out of your control, unfortunately.

You can cancel a period of annual leave, but you risk upsetting the employee as they may already have paid for their travel.

In any case, the government has advised against all non-essential travel and several holiday companies are cancelling travel plans.

8. But can I still send people overseas on business?

Due to the guidance to avoid all non-essential travel, you would have to assess whether your overseas business travel is necessary. In the very rare case that it is, you would need to do a risk assessment involving the employee.

9. My employee’s child’s school has closed but I need the employee at work. What can I do?

All UK schools are now closed except for key workers’ children and vulnerable children. If your workforce is classed as ‘key workers’, they can still send their children to school.

All employees have a right to time off to deal with a family emergency, including to sort out alternative childcare arrangements.

However, this does not give your staff the right to take extended time off to look after the child while the school is shut.

Normally, one or two days is enough to look for other arrangements and after that, if the parent cannot find alternative arrangements to look after the child, then you will need to agree on another way of covering the time.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t deny them their right to time off for dependants but you can look to agree what happens in the long term.

10. What hygiene measures should I take?

One of the ways you can stop the spread of a viral infection is by promoting clean, healthy working habits. The World Health Organisation’s recommendations are to:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Throw away used tissues into a closed bin immediately.
  • Clean your hands using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.

What’s next?

The UK coronavirus situation is evolving rapidly. 

If you’re a Peninsula client, make sure you regularly check your coronavirus toolkit for the latest updates and content.

By following the latest guidance, you’ll be in a good position to protect your people and see your business through this challenging time.

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