Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Helpful information for employers

As coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) continues to spread, it is important employers consider how they respond to the global health crisis and share this with their teams.

It is a good idea to remind employees of the steps that they should take to reduce the spread of coronavirus, while continuing operations as normally as possible.

For example:

  • Wash hands often and thoroughly with soap and water. In particular, after going to the toilet, before eating or handling food, and when you get to work/get home;
  • cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze;
  • put any used tissues in the bin straightaway and wash your hands immediately after handling used tissues;
  • try to avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth if you have not washed your hands recently; and
  • try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.

A couple of the most frequently asked questions from employers relating to the virus are below:

If an employee is advised to self-isolate to avoid the risk of spreading coronavirus, are they entitled to sick pay?

Current government guidance is that an individual should self-isolate at home for 14 days after visiting certain areas or after having close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).

If an employee is self-isolating, following government guidance, but they do not have any symptoms, it is arguable that they do not have the right to statutory sick pay, as this applies only where the employee is incapable of work due to illness. However, it would be good practice for employers to treat the absence as sick leave and pay the employee in accordance with their usual policy, or to pay them in full. Employers should aim to avoid the situation where an employee attends work against medical guidance, risking the spread of coronavirus, because they are concerned about not being paid or having to use up their annual leave allowance to cover any absence.

If an employee is absent following an instruction from their employer not to come to work as a preventative measure, they are entitled to be paid as usual.

On 26 February 2020, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a statement to the House of Commons saying that “Self-isolation on medical advice is considered sickness for employment purposes. That is a very important message for employers and those who can go home and self-isolate as if they were sick, because it is for medical reasons.” Whether or not this is an accurate explanation of the legal position for all employees, it confirms that it is good practice for employers to pay sick pay to self-isolating employees as if they were in fact ill.

If an employee has tested positive for coronavirus, or has flu-like symptoms, they will be entitled to sick pay as usual.

On 4 March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that emergency legislation would be brought forward, including “measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the very first day you are sick, instead of four days under the current rules”. No further details are yet known about this measure, such as which individuals will be covered.

What should an employer do if an employee is concerned about the risk of contracting coronavirus and does not want to attend work?

As a general rule, an employer can require employees concerned about contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) to attend work. However, the employer should check current government guidance about self-isolation and take the employee’s own circumstances into account when deciding whether there are grounds for the employee to stay at home.

Where there are no grounds for self-isolation, the fear of contracting the illness would not generally be sufficient reason for failing to attend work, and an employer faced with an employee refusing to come to work will be entitled to take disciplinary action for unauthorised absence. An employer could also stop paying an employee who refuses to attend work on the basis that the employee is failing to perform their part of the contract.

However, where business needs allow, an employer may wish to take a more flexible approach and allow employees to work from home, or to take periods of annual or unpaid leave. This is particularly advisable when the employer is dealing with vulnerable employees, i.e. those at high risk of developing more severe symptoms from the coronavirus, such as employees with asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

With the prime minister due to hold an emergency Cobra meeting today to consider bringing in measures to delay the spread of coronavirus in the UK, it is important to look out for further updates.

If you require any further support or would like some help with communication to employees on the matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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