How your business should prepare for a coronavirus outbreak

Is your business starting to consider the risk of a coronavirus outbreak?

The impact of a COVID-19 outbreak on your workforce should now be on every employer’s risk register. Matt Huddleson explains why, and what you should do.

It may be a storm in a teacup. You may say it will never happen. But the point of planning for risk is that you can manage it IF it does happen. In that sense it is no different from planning for a cyber attack, fire, or natural disaster.

Cases of COVID-19 in the UK have so far been limited, but you only need to look at Italy to realise how quickly the situation can escalate. Regardless of the severity of the illness and speed of its transmission, the public health reaction means that a coronavirus outbreak could have a significant impact on your business operations (as your employees are forced to self-isolate; or the their workplace is quarantined). And that is without even considering the secondary impact on customers and supply chains.

As a first step, it is worthwhile considering whether your existing business continuity plan covers an outbreak of disease or infection. If it does, then that will be your plan for dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus in your area/workforce. You should take a moment now to consider whether that plan will work, and implement any changes that you feel need to be made now.

And if you don’t have a business continuity plan? Get a plan!

The next step is to consider to what extent your business (or business divisions) can withstand a complete or partial close-down, and for how long, and what will be required to get business up and running normally again. What will be the impact on work-flow, turnover and cash-flow? Can you flex your workforce to soften the impact or mitigate the risk? Are any of your existing contractual commitments at risk, and what is your legal/financial position if they are? Do you need to look at your short term business finance facilities? Do you have insurance to cover any of these risks (if not, I imagine it is too late to change that now)?

You should start to consider your policy in respect of paying employees for the time they spend off work related to these issues. Employees who have contracted coronavius will be entitled to sick pay. Those who are told to self-isolate may not necessarily be legally entitled to sick pay, but it depends on how your contracts and policies are worded; and either way, you could face employee relations issues if you don’t pay them. If you instruct an employee to stay away from work (essentially for health and safety reasons), they will be entitled to their full pay.

Tied into that will be your policy about whether and in what circumstances you will instruct individual employees to stay away from work, and how you will respond to requests from other employees (who are not suspected of having the virus) to stay away from work due to their perception of the risk to them personally (especially if they are frail or suffer from other respiratory problems).

You should also consider what practical steps can you take. Can you put in place additional hygiene and cleaning arrangements. Can you purchase and distribute hand and workstation sanitising solutions? You should expect the availability of these things to dry up pretty quickly as people start to prepare for the spread of the virus. If you wait until am outbreak hits, it will be too late.

Finally, you should tread very carefully around conduct and poor performance issues which relate in some way to the actual or perceived risk of coronavirus. Public interest will be on the side of the employee, and employers can expect employment tribunals to look very sympathetically on employees who have been impacted (or who fear being impacted) by coronavirus or any policy decisions made in relation to it.

The content of this article is not intended to be specific legal advice.  If you require any assistance in relation to this area of law, please contact Matt Huddleson.