Coronavirus COVID-19: how should UK employers respond?

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Lisa Duffey, Client Director

3rd March 2020

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Growing concern about a potential coronavirus pandemic has implications for HR and ER leaders – whether or not you rely on international travel.

For an employer, the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus presents a challenge unlike disease outbreaks we’ve seen before. Even if your organisation doesn’t rely heavily on international business travel, the growing public concern – and the potential for a rapid, global escalation – means it’s important to take proactive steps now.

The main reason COVID-19 is different is because of its long incubation time. Carriers can be infectious long before any symptoms arrive, and in many cases those symptoms start as a simple cough or mild fever. By the time the disease is recognised, it has already been passed on.

That means you need to start work now – preparing your plans and communication channels, making decisions about travel, and ensuring staff and line managers are all clear about how and when to self-quarantine.

(Please note: the information in this article is up to date at the time of publishing, but official advice on coronavirus changes daily. Please also check the government’s coronavirus advice for the public.)

Preparing employee communications about coronavirus

At the time of writing, the UK has a rising number confirmed cases of COVID-19. There’s widespread public alarm, and it’s likely your employees will be reassured by some calm, well-chosen communications explaining what to do if that situation should change.

If you already have a well-defined wellbeing strategy, you may well have lines of communication in place. Including your coronavirus advice alongside other health and wellbeing messages could be a good way to spread the word, without causing undue concern.

In general, helpful information might include:

  • How and when to self-quarantine, and any arrangements your organisation has made in this area
  • Links to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official coronavirus travel advice, for those who are planning a holiday
  • Clarification of your agreed position on international business travel, if appropriate
  • Reassurance about the current low risk to individual health

It is also worth reinforcing the NHS’s “Catch it, bin it, kill it” advice on preventing the spread of germs. It currently seems the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads through airborne water droplets, in the same way as flu, so similar precautions are sensible.

In particular, ensure your line managers are fully updated and informed about the situation, and any processes you have in place – as they’ll be the first point of contact for any self-quarantine reports.

Handling coronavirus self-quarantine as an employer

Because of COVID-19’s two-week incubation period, anyone who may have come into contact with the disease (for example, travelling to an affected area) should stay indoors for two weeks, and avoid contact with people.

As an employer, this could cause the potentially difficult issue of healthy employees needing to stay away from work for a fortnight, as a precaution – or of the employees themselves failing to comply with the guidance, because they feel well or are worried about exceeding sick pay limits.

It’s worth remembering that the business risk of a potential coronavirus outbreak in your workplace far outweighs the inconvenience of a few individuals needing to remain at home.

For those who can work from home, the solution is relatively simple; they continue to work remotely as normal throughout their quarantine – unless they develop symptoms, in which case business-as-usual sickness policies should apply.

But for roles where physical attendance is essential, you might consider whether you can be creative with your policies and working arrangements while balancing the operational resourcing requirements of your business.

Importantly, any arrangements should be agreed early, and communicated clearly and consistently, to avoid line managers handling them on a case-by-case basis.

Coronavirus and business travel: how essential is “essential”?

The list of countries affected by official FCO guidance changes daily, but the advice generally falls into two categories – they advise against all travel, or “all but essential” travel.

For an employer, the wording “essential” creates a risky grey area. Without clear guidance, some managers might consider a business trip essential that another might not – and as a result, your organisation could fail in its duty of care.

We therefore recommend that the decision on what – if anything – constitutes “essential” business travel should be made early, and at the most senior level possible. And the bar should be set extremely high.

Indeed, it can be useful to treat the FCO guidance as a bare minimum, and set broader restrictions to protect your workforce – and show employees you value their safety.

Business continuity planning for a COVID-19 pandemic

Alongside your immediate actions to make policy decisions and keep staff and managers informed, it’s important to have a plan ready in case coronavirus spreads more widely. Consider how self-quarantine arrangements would work if a significant percentage of your staff were affected.

And a pandemic would also impact staff indirectly. For example, if all the organisations in your supply chain faced similar issues, how would that affect your own workloads and shift patterns?

Don’t wait and see; start working now

There’s a lot to consider. But if you can start laying the foundations early – by establishing clear communications channels and making key decisions ahead of time – you’ll be well placed if you need to respond.

As with so many HR and ER matters, making your policy is only half the battle. What matters is how well it’s implemented by managers and staff in the real world. And that’s why you need to start communicating about COVID-19 now.

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