What UK Employers Should Know About the Wuhan Novel Coronavirus Outbreak

The UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE), have published guidance about the Wuhan novel coronavirus to the public in the UK and to UK travellers.The Foreign and Commonwealth office is also regularly updating its guidance on travel to China. This guidance is available:

While it is too early to assess if the Wuhan coronavirus will be a major health issue in the UK, UK employers will, as always, need to consider their duty of care to their employees and take appropriate measures.

Business travel

The Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to mainland China. This travel guidance is continually being updated. Some airlines, including British Airways as of 29 January, have suspended all flights to and from mainland China.

If one of your employees is subject to government quarantine, please consult official guidance.

Prevention

There is, at the time of writing, no vaccine for Wuhan novel coronavirus (though scientists are working to develop one). The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. While there is currently no scientific consensus on how coronavirus is transmitted, conventional methods for avoiding the spread of flu and the common cold are likely relevant.

PHE promotes the “Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” method of preventing influenza and other communicable illnesses (“Catch” any sneezes in a tissue, “Bin” any tissues immediately and “Kill” the virus by washing hands with soap and warm water). PHE advises avoiding contact with sick people and washing hands often. If someone is unwell, they should rest, drink plenty of fluids and stay at home so they do not spread virus to others.  

It may be appropriate for employers to remind staff of these basic steps that can be taken to guard against illness, and provide tissues and hand sanitiser in common areas.  

Employer Obligations and Recommended Practices

Employers should consider the potential workplace issues that may arise, including:

  • international travel;

  • medical inquiries;

  • potential quarantines for staff who have traveled; 

  • anxiety and stress in relation to potential exposure to colleagues and customers who may have travelled or been exposed; 

  • flexible working arrangements; and

  • the appropriate level of information and education for management and staff.

Stay informed and communicate accurately

As this is a developing situation, employers should be careful to ensure they communicate to staff in an accurate and even-handed way. This may be a stressful situation for some employees and employers should avoid causing undue stress and anxiety. In particular:

  • Managers and HR should not provide medical opinions about the effects and spread of the coronavirus.

  • Employers should stay informed of official government resources as they develop, as well as guidance from any internal medically qualified staff, such as an occupational health advisor.

  • Employers may find it helpful to identify an individual or team that will be responsible for the organisation’s response and appropriate fielding of employee enquiries.

  • Communications and advice should reflect only the government or occupational health guidelines and other official sources. Misinformation should be corrected promptly if it arises.

  • Employers may wish to connect staff with appropriate government agencies, health organisations, and other resources to learn more about the coronavirus.

Reinforce sickness absence policies

Employers may wish to encourage staff to review company sickness absence and home working policies, and remind staff to take sick leave or work from home if they are feeling ill.

Consider deferring non-essential travel

The decision to defer business travel will require a balancing of all relevant factors, including the destination, current government warnings in place, and an individual employee’s circumstances and concerns. Employers should be particularly mindful of the Foreign Office’s developing guidance in relation to restricting travel.

If an employee or their family member has compromised immunity or a particular vulnerability (such as pregnancy) that should be considered, including taking advice from the employee’s own doctor or a third-party occupational health specialist paid for by the employer. 

Employers may also want to consider permitting employees to defer non-essential travel to areas still designated as low risk. More difficult cases may arise where individuals disproportionately concerned about the potential harm and risk compared to the harm as assessed by official sources. Employers should handle such cases with sensitivity, taking into account the employee’s circumstances (such as any physical or mental health concerns) – it may in fact be reasonable to allow travel to be deferred for that particular individual.

Consider work from home upon return from travel

There is currently no reason to require staff to work from home because of the Wuhan novel coronavirus, unless a member of staff has travelled to an affected region. However, if a workplace is able to be flexible about working from home, employers may wish to be more permissive of home working, particularly for those who have recently returned from overseas travel in order to minimise any potential for transmission and to ease anxieties.  

The risks of requiring administrative leave without pay

If an employee who has travelled to an affected area is not able to work from home, an employer may want to consider allowing the employee a temporary period of leave for quarantine purposes. The employee should receive pay and normal benefits during this period of leave. Any leave should be discussed and agreed with the employee and should be for no longer than is required, which should be assessed on based on facts derived from official or authoritative sources.

In all cases, employers should consider the contractual agreement with the particular employee and seek specific advice as needed. 

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.