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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has laid out new guidelines in the UK’s fight against the coronavirus, including a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.
He said people should only travel to and from work where "absolutely necessary". Furthermore, he advised that people should only leave their homes to shop for essential items or fulfil any medical or care needs.
He also ordered the immediate closure of all shops selling non-essential goods.
On Friday, March 20th, the UK government announced plans to provide financial supports to businesses to keep employees in work despite their employers having no work to provide. A government grant will cover 80% of furloughed employees’ wages up to a maximum of £2,500 per employee per month under what will be known as the Job Retention Scheme.
NI schools to close on Monday
As it’s now confirmed that schools in Northern Ireland will close next Monday, it’s vital that employers are prepared to handle employee requests for time off to handle childcare arrangements.
There’s no set answer to how to deal with these requests and each employer should consider the best approach for their business.
Some of the options available to employers are:
Use time off for dependants (unpaid leave)
Employees are entitled to take a reasonable amount of unpaid time off during working hours to take action which is necessary to provide help to dependants.
Consider allowing parents to use this entitlement to confirm their childcare arrangements.
Parental leave (unpaid leave)
Certain employees may be entitled to use parental leave if they have at least one year’s continuous service. 18 weeks’ parental leave is available to parents of children under 18 years of age.
Authorised unpaid leave
As we're dealing with an unprecedented situation, you may consider allowing employees to take a period of unpaid leave to allow them to handle their family arrangements.
Annual leave (paid leave)
Allowing employees to use their annual leave entitlement will allow them to continue to receive their salary during time off to make childcare arrangements.
Northern Ireland's six further and higher education colleges have also announced they will suspend all face-to-face teaching as of 5pm Friday, March 20th.
Employer advice on the coronavirus
Employers need to ensure that proper control, preventative and where necessary, isolation measures are in place.
It’s important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect your employees’ health & safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing. Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.
Give employees the facts
The risk of anyone who has not recently been to an affected area picking up the infection is very low, unless someone they are close to has the virus. Risk of becoming infected will differ depending on personal circumstances, but it’s still important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concerns proportionate to the risk.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises all UK nationals to leave China where possible.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also advises against all travel to the Hubei province which includes Wuhan and Xiangfan
Consider alternatives to any planned travel to affected areas, e.g. postponing a trip or carrying out meetings via Skype. If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk.
Always know where your employees are and where they’re going. Ensure they’re given clear instructions on hygiene. If employees report symptoms of the virus while they’re travelling, you will have to support them. You should also consider making plans to enable any of your employees who are based in China or any other affected region to return to Northern Ireland.
Employees returning from affected areas
For travellers from Wuhan and Hubei Province, Government advice is currently:
“People who have returned from Hubei Province, including Wuhan, Iran, Daegu or Cheongdo in the Republic of Korea, and any area within Italy under containment measures in the last 14 days should avoid attending work. They should call NHS 111 for advice and self-isolate."
This means that, even if no symptoms are present, affected individuals should stay away from work for 14 days. There is no legal requirement to pay employees who are under these instructions unless they report to you as sick during that time in which case normal sickness absence and pay procedures should apply. However, due to the circumstances, you may decide to maintain payment to the individual, particularly if they were in Wuhan or the Hubei Province on business.
If employees who fall into this category attempt to come to work, you should remind them of the instructions and tell them to go home for the stated period. Again, there would be no legal requirement to pay the employee because it is not you who is requiring them to avoid work; it is Government advice.
For travellers from elsewhere in China, Government advice is currently:
“Currently, there are minimal cases outside the listed areas and therefore the likelihood of an individual coming into contact with a confirmed case is extremely low.
“These staff can continue to attend work unless they have been informed that they have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
“If individuals are aware that they have had close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, they should contact NHS 111 for further advice."
Where you have concerns about a non-symptomatic employee (particularly if it's known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of suspension on precautionary grounds.
Where you choose to suspend returning employees just as a precaution, it will have to be on full pay unless the contract gives you a right to suspend without pay for this reason (which is unlikely).
Existing health conditions
When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable. This includes those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as those who are pregnant or older.
Discrimination, bullying and harassment
Care should be taken to ensure the coronavirus does not lead to incidences of harassment in the workplace. You should be alert to ‘banter’ between employees about the virus which may relate to an employee’s nationality or ethnicity. Throughout it all, ensure your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.
It’s important that everyone in your business practices good hygiene to stop viruses from spreading. The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures are:
- Frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
- When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue – throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.
- If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, phone your GP (do not visit the GP surgery) and tell your GP if you have been in China in the last 14 days.
With regards to the workplace, if an employee has shown signs of the virus, cleaning schedules should include the cleaning of:
- All surfaces and objects which are visibly contaminated with body fluids.
- All potentially contaminated high-contact areas such as toilets, door handles, telephones.