What Should Employers Be Doing About Coronavirus?

It’s a hot topic, one that’s seemingly becoming more critical as the days go by. What might have at first felt like the dealings of a few snow days, with staff working from home to avoid travel, is now a much greater consideration as we fully take on board the risk to public health and face the prospect of a ‘virtual office’.

So, how do we keep our employees safe whilst minimising the impact on business? That question has been probably one of the most pressing among business-owners of late and there is no definitive answer since we don’t know the full extent of COVID-19 just yet. Most are hoping it won’t come to a crisis, but the uncertainty calls for action.
 
You’d be forgiven for having the initial worry of how to stop the abuse of staff using Coronavirus as an excuse for time out of the office. I’m sure you weren’t alone in that chain of thought. Let’s face it, there are some staff members that just love to milk an excuse to not come in. But however true that may be, we are now in the days of having to follow government recommendations in the interest of protecting our workforce and minimising risk.

Coronavirus was declared a global emergency in January of this year and is a fast-moving topic. Employers are advised to stay informed and get prepared in a bid to minimise the risk to their workforce. Having a plan of action is the key to riding this out as best you can and that means keeping abreast of the latest developments. The Government and the NHS have mutually been planning for this sort of event for decades. I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or terrifying personally, but it does mean we have a dependable source when it comes to information and advice.

The Impact of Coronavirus on Business

All businesses face a degree of risk simply from infection if this virus continues to spread. But if your business is involved in supply chain where you source your goods from an area considered high-risk, this could pose a threat, particularly if you meet reps. The risk is not just limited to infection, it could also create disruption in supply, which could have a significant impact on sales and ultimately staffing and even business survival.
 
If an employee returns from a trip to a high-risk area, business-related or pleasure, businesses need to consider the threat of contamination. Whilst many of the people who have caught Coronavirus have experienced mild symptoms and recovered, it’s much more of a risk for vulnerable groups such as elderly people, those who are immunocompromised and those with comorbidities.

Your responsibilities

Whilst there are currently no legalities directly related to COVID-19, employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees whilst at work. Coronavirus poses a serious threat to these elements and should be taken seriously.
 
Here’s what you can be doing currently:

1. STAY INFORMED

Keep up-to-date with information about COVID-19 and the risk to public health. Information is changing daily and updates are posted daily at 2pm on GOV.UK. Further information can be obtained from the Public Health Agency or NHS.

2. HAVE A CONTINGENCY PLAN

Most businesses are now in the throes of developing a plan for their workforce to operate remotely, with staff working from home to minimise the risk of contracting COVID-19. Unless there is an immediate risk to your business, this plan need only be a contingency until further notice. CIPD recommends having a contingency team to keep abreast of the changing information, to update their plan.

3. CONSIDER THE NEEDS OF INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEES

If an employee poses a risk to the remaining workforce because they have travelled to a high-risk area or have suspected symptoms of Coronavirus, businesses should request that the individual self-isolates until they are fit to return to work. High-risk areas include the Hubei province of China, South Korea, Iran and lockdown areas in northern Italy. Individuals who suspect Coronavirus will need a medical professional to rule out COVID-19 and if they do have it, they will not be able to return to work until they have fully recovered.
 
If employees who are vulnerable; for example, over 65s, those with comorbidities like diabetes or respiratory problems or those are immunocompromised, request to work from home to reduce their risk of contraction, this must be honoured. So too should the request of parents having to stay at home to look after children as a result of school closures. If employees are unable to work at home, they may be offered unpaid emergency time off or parental leave.

4. KEEP THE WORKPLACE CLEAN

Until we know more, the best we can do is to keep your place of work as hygienic as possible to minimise the spread of any viral or bacterial infections.

  • Avoid contact if it’s not necessary. If a handshake can be avoided, avoid it.
  • Reiterate your handwashing policy and raise awareness of this in areas like kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Provide alcohol hand rub to your employees. Be mindful of the shortage.
  • Encourage staff to cough or sneeze into their arms and avoid touching their faces.

Pleasingly there is a lot of optimism around the idea that COVD-19 will be contained and a vaccine quickly created meaning our contingency plans might never be needed, but until we know more, it’s a case of us all having to take the threat of spread seriously and prepare for the potential of a virtual operation. Maybe this could be a good trial run for staff wishing to work remotely – proof that they can be as productive at home as they can in the office. I guess this remains to be seen.

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