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How can UK employers handle the coronavirus outbreak?

Written by Latifa Yedroudj on Tuesday, 25 February 2020. Posted in Franchise

As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, what are the steps employers can take to ensure the health and safety of their staff?

How can UK employers handle the coronavirus outbreak?

As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, what are the steps employers can take to ensure the health and safety of their staff?

The World Health Organisation has warned the world must prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic, and countries need to step up in their efforts in contingency plans. In light of this, how can employers prepare their workers and enforce their duty of care? Paul Holcroft, Associate Director at UK’s leading HR and employment advice firm Croner, has suggested seven steps businesses can take to deal with the virus outbreak and protect their staff’s well-being.

The WHO said it is too early to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic but has urged countries to be “in a phase of preparedness”. China has the largest number of cases in the world, with a reported 77,000 people infected along with further outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and even Italy - which is rather close to home.

In a business, employees are often jetting across the globe and it is therefore essential they are aware of the precautions to take to prevent themselves from contracting coronavirus. Although the number of people infected in the UK is low, it is every employer's responsibility to have a duty of care towards their workers and advise them on health and safety procedures.

It is important employers remind their workers of any company wellbeing initiatives in place and to direct them to anyone in need of their services. Business leaders should also convey the relevant facts and information about coronavirus in accordance to the risk factors and directly address their employees’ concerns about the situation.

“It’s important to remember that your employees will be worried about the virus. In addition to having a duty of care to protect health and safety, you also need to consider their wellbeing,” Mr Holcroft said. “Consider any wellbeing initiatives you have and remind employees of them, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme. The risk of anyone who has not recently been to China 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 is important to convey to employees the reality of the situation to keep concern proportionate to the risk.”

If workers must travel to China for business trips, employers should assess whether this is necessary and if other alternative arrangements can be carried out. In the case there is no other option, employees should be given clear instructions on how to minimise risk of transmission and to practise good hygiene habits abroad. If staff report any symptoms of Coronavirus, employers must make necessary preparations to support them and carry out the relevant steps.

“Consider alternatives to any planned travel to China, e.g. postponing a trip, or carrying out meetings via Skype,’ Mr Holcroft said. “If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively, but proportionately, manage the risk. Always know where your employees are and where they are going. Ensure they are given clear instructions on hygiene. If employees report symptoms of the virus while they are travelling, you will have to support them. You should also consider making plans to enable any of your employees who are based in China for work to return to the UK.”

Employers should also be wary of workers returning from affected areas. Those returning from China’s Hubei province where the virus outbreak is extremely high must stay at home for 14 days before getting the all-clear to come back to work. Employees with symptoms returning from other affected countries in the region should also follow the standard protocol as advised by the government.

“The Government line is that anyone returning from the Hubei province within the last 14 days should stay at home, and anyone returning from countries such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand etc. within the previous 14 days who has symptoms should stay at home,” said Mr Holcroft. “Non-symptomatic employees returning from places outside of the Hubei province can attend work. Still, if you have concerns (particularly if it is 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 full pay on precautionary grounds.”

Business leaders should also take into account the needs of certain employees who may be susceptible to contracting coronavirus due to pre-existing health conditions.

“When determining your response to the virus, pay particular attention to the needs of certain employees who may be vulnerable, e.g. those with existing respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes, cancer as well as those who are pregnant or are older,” Mr Holcroft added.

Treating an individual differently because of ethnicity, race or place of origin is prohibited. Employers must keep in place a no-tolerance policy to workplace harassment or bullying against employees over their race or ethnicity. Unless there is a reasonable basis to consider the employee contagious, stereotyping against workers because of their ethnicity goes against their human rights.

“Coronavirus is not a reason to treat employees differently because of their nationality,” Mr Holcroft said. “You should be alert to ‘banter’, and other instances of harassment, between employees about the virus which relates to someone’s nationality or ethnicity and ensure that your zero-tolerance stance to harassment is maintained.”

The World Health Organisation’s standard infection control measures include frequently cleaning hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water, covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing with flexed elbow or tissue - and to throw the tissue away immediately and wash your hands. Also, one should avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough. It is important employers enforce a duty of care towards their workers, providing them with the necessary information, addressing any employee discrimination and to keep their worries and concerns at bay during this time.

About the Author

Latifa Yedroudj

Latifa Yedroudj

Latifa Yedroudj has joined the Elite team to fully immerse herself in the business side of journalism, a strong passion of hers cultivated from young having co-run her mother's start up business since she was 18. Her interests lie in a wide range of subjects, including start ups, business, travel, and anything entrepreneurial she can get her hands on. She has worked for some of the biggest names in journalism including The Guardian and The Mirror. Follow her on @latifa_yed on Twitter for her latest journo rants.

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