Covid 19 Payroll Briefing
The Government has declared the coronavirus – Covid 19 to be a “serious and imminent threat to public health” and that it is highly likely that the virus will become widespread.
It has been estimated that up to 20% of the UK workforce may be off sick at the same time at the peak of an epidemic. Employers need to take steps to protect their workers and be ready to deal with the disruption that Covid 19 will cause. In this briefing, we consider frequently asked questions from employers.
None of our employees has Covid 19 – do we need to do anything?
Yes. Even if there are no instances of Covid 19 in your workplace, you must still take steps to meet your legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of your workers. This duty requires you not to expose people to material risks and this includes risks posed by Covid 19. You should assess and document risks generally for all workers and specifically for those who are vulnerable to the coronavirus (e.g. those with underlying respiratory problems, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer and older workers). Special consideration should also be given to any specific risks to pregnant workers, those who have given birth in the last 6 months or who are breastfeeding.
You will be expected to take reasonable steps to control or eliminate identified risks. The Government’s latest guidance for employers highlights that the virus is most likely to spread by touching or standing close to an affected person and, possibly, by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the face. Risk control measures could include steps such as:
Circulating the Government’s latest guidance to staff and giving them a point of contact within the business to discuss any concerns.
Reminding staff about the recommended hygiene measures.
Discouraging physical forms of greetings such as handshakes and kisses.
Temporarily banning attendance at non-essential meetings, conferences and social events.
Cancelling any large gatherings such as internal conferences or parties.
Providing plenty of free tissues and additional bins.
Providing access to anti-bacterial hand wash and hand sanitiser.
Providing anti-bacterial surface spray or wipes in kitchen and eating areas;
Engaging additional cleaning services.
Designating a special area for anyone who is displaying symptoms of Covid 19 whilst at work.
Allowing all staff to work from home wherever possible.
One of our employees feels unwell and thinks they might have the Covid 19 – what should we do?
If the employee is at work, they should immediately be removed to an isolated area until they are able to go home. The Government’s latest guidance is that such individuals should not go to a GP or hospital and nor should they contact NHS 111 for advice. Currently, such individuals will not be tested for Covid 19. The employee will need to self-isolate for 7 or 14 days depending on their household arrangements (see below).
The Government’s advice is that employers in this situation do not need to take any special measures such as sending staff home or deep cleaning the workplace. This is because most suspected cases turn out to be negative.
One of our employees has been in direct contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the Covid 19 – what should we do?
The employee should be advised to call NHS 111 for advice. They will probably be advised to self-isolate for 14 days even if they are displaying no symptoms. If they subsequently become unwell, they should contact NHS 111 for reassessment, and they may be tested for the virus. If the test result is negative, the employee will be advised to remain in self-isolation until 14 days has passed. However, you won’t need to take any special measures.
One of our employees has been diagnosed with the Covid 19 – what should we do?
The employee will either be treated in a hospital or cared for at home. The employee should not attend work until they have fully recovered and have medical clearance to do so. You should pay sick pay to the employee in the normal way.
You should notify other staff that a colleague has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, however, you should not usually need to name the individual and you should only disclose necessary information. The Information Commissioner’s Office has published some short guidance for employers on this issue.
You will be contacted by Public Health England’s local Health Protection Team to identify those who have been in contact with the employee and discuss any special measures to be taken. This may affect the following staff members:
anyone who has been in close face-to-face or touching contact;
anyone who has talked with, or been coughed on, for any length of time while the employee was symptomatic;
anyone who has cleaned up bodily fluids; and
close friendship or work groups.
They may advise that anyone who had contact with the affected employee should self-isolate for 14 days and be tested for the virus. They will advise you how to undertake a deep clean of the premises and how to collect and store any rubbish produced by the affected employee.
Staff who have not had close contact with the affected employee do not need to take any precautions and can continue to work.
What exactly is self-isolation and who needs to do it?
Self-isolation means staying at home, not attending work or other public areas and limiting contact with other people for a period of either 7 or 14 days. The Government has produced guidance on self-isolation here and here. Currently, the following people are required to self-isolate:
those living alone who have symptoms of Covid 19 (e.g. a continuous cough or fever) must self-isolate for 7 days from when the symptoms started;
all of those who live in a household with others where one person has symptoms of the Covid 19 must self-isolate for 14 days from when the ill person’s symptoms started (i.e. everyone in the household must self-isolate);
those awaiting a Covid 19 test result must self-isolate for 14 days;
those entering the UK from certain countries must self-isolate for 14 days; and
those who have been in direct contact with someone who has Covid 19 must self-isolate for 14 days.
At present, nobody outside of these groups is required to self-isolate.
What should we pay to an employee who self-isolates?
The pay entitlement for employees in self-isolation will depend on their situation the entitlements for the different scenarios below. For employers with less than 250 employees as at 28th February 2020 the Government will refund the cost by refunding the cost of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) paid out as a result of the Covid 19. The scheme will be limited to 2 weeks’ worth of SSP per employee. At the present time, this scheme is not yet up and running, but further details are expected shortly.
Too unwell to work, diagnosed with the Covid 19
You should pay sick pay in the normal way, except SSP is payable from the first day of absence rather than the fourth.
Too unwell to work, not diagnosed with Covid 19
If an employee self-isolates and is too unwell to work but has not been diagnosed with Covid 19 then SSP is due. Again, SSP is payable from the first day of absence rather than the fourth day. You should not insist upon a receipt of a Fit Note.
Not unwell, self-isolating because of medical advice or Government guidance
Even though the employee is not sick, they will be entitled to be paid SSP because they are following medical advice or Government guidance to self-isolate. Again, SSP is payable from the first day of absence rather than the fourth day.
Not unwell, self-isolating because of employer’s advice
If you have instructed an employee to self-isolate, then the employee should be paid their normal pay (not sick pay). This is because they are complying with your instructions.
Not unwell, self-isolating out of choice
If an employee wishes to self-isolate out of fear of catching Covid 19 then you should discuss the way forward with them. In light of the Government’s latest guidance on social distancing (see below), you should aim to agree that the employee can work from home where possible. Where this is not possible, you could agree that the employee takes a period of paid or unpaid leave. Ultimately, if the employee is not unwell or self-isolating, is unable to work from home and is refusing to come to work, then you could consider disciplinary action.
Not unwell and working from home
The Government’s latest guidance on social distancing is that everyone (and especially those based in London) should:
stop non-essential contact with others
work from home where they can
stop all unnecessary travel
This kind of social distancing is very important for the over 70s, those with underlying conditions and pregnant women. Those with the most serious health conditions should be largely shielded from all social contact for 12 weeks.
Accordingly, employers should be directing employees to work from home wherever it is possible to do so. If the employee is working from home, you should pay them their normal pay (not sick pay).
Should we insist upon a Fit Note to certify sickness absences of more than 7 days?
Medical evidence is not required for the first 7 days of sickness absence. After 7 days, employers usually ask employees to provide a Fit Note from their GP to certify their absence. However, the Government has advised employers to use their discretion around the need for medical evidence where an employee has been advised to self-isolate. In other words, do not insist upon the production of a Fit Note at the moment. The Government has also announced plans to allow a special notification via the NHS 111 helpline to be used where an employer requires evidence.
Do we have to allow employees time off work if their child’s school or childcare setting has closed? Do we have to pay them?
Employees are entitled to take a reasonable amount of dependent’s leave https://www.gov.uk/time-off-for-dependantsto care for their children in emergency situations. Typically, such leave should be taken for no more than a few days. If an employee needs a longer period of leave, they may be entitled to take parental leave (up to a maximum of 4 weeks per year per child). Both dependent’s leave and parental leave are unpaid (unless you choose to enhance the basic right and pay for some or all such periods of leave).
Alternatively, an employee could ask to take paid annual leave or to work from home. Whether working from home is feasible will depend on the nature of the employee’s job and the ages and/or numbers of children they will have to care for.