Staff take the lead from employers on Covid-19 – Tony McGlennan

Tony McGlennan, legal director at Addleshaw Goddard, outlines the essentials of how to protect your business during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
How staff react to the virus depends on a firm’s response, says McGlennan.How staff react to the virus depends on a firm’s response, says McGlennan.
How staff react to the virus depends on a firm’s response, says McGlennan.

The current position on Covid-19 is constantly developing across the UK and worldwide, with the situation in other countries continuing to highlight the scale of the public health emergency that we face here.

Day by day, the situation is changing dramatically, forcing Chancellor Rishi Sunak to introduce sweeping economic measures in an effort to stabilise the country and protect business fortunes. The UK government has also warned it is possible that up to one-fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.

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In this uncertain climate, business must also have regard to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The act provides for general duties upon employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees, and to ensure that their business is carried out in such a way that persons other than employees, and who may be affected by the conduct of the business, are not exposed to risks to their own health or safety.

Judgement and good practice

However, the management of a risk such as a virus is not straightforward, and will change according to circumstances - decisions will need to be based on judgement and good practice. Essentially, government guidance should be the standard adopted for controlling the risks of coronavirus, and any additional measures should be informed by competent advice.

Failure to comply with legal duties can be a criminal offence with the potential to attract an unlimited turnover-based fine. It can also mean imprisonment of up to two years for individuals and directors who are complicit in offending.

The government’s coronavirus action plan is fast-evolving. Emergency legislation has provided powers to close airports and ports while detaining and quarantining people suspected of having the virus.

Amid unprecedented measures, it all means a significant headache for UK businesses – so key mitigation steps for employers are advised amid the “stay at home” advice. These should include: - A risk assessment carried out to ensure that adequate control measures are put in place - Monitoring the risks posed to those likely to be at a higher risk, in particular immuno-compromised individuals - In line with an ever-evolving situation, continuously reviewing and communicating an up-to-date position - Encouraging staff to review the company sickness and working from home policies and reiterate to those who are feeling unwell to avoid contact with others - Adopting a robust management plan to ensure business continuity in the event of a severe outbreak

Where employees are not working from home, employers should be fully aware of the up to date governmental advice on best practice. This means adhering to social distancing guidance; reminding staff of the need to undertake regular hand washing and use antibacterial items, and providing them with the means to do so; managers being able to spot the symptoms of the virus; and procedures being in place to safely deal with events where it is considered that someone is potentially infected.

There is undoubtedly going to be significant and ongoing business disruption, whether that be related to the movement of staff or the management of supply chains and customer demand. It is, however, unclear at this point what effect measures such as quarantines will have on the supply and distribution of food and other products as the scale of the government’s response grows.

Practical steps that can be taken to minimise business impact include:

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- Identifying contracts likely to be affected by the current outbreak to understand your rights and obligations and dispute resolution mechanisms - Acting promptly to address any contract breaches, including, where applicable, providing relevant notices of a dispute and commencing enforcement action where appropriate - Reviewing insurance policies to understand the depth of coverage and relevant notification periods - Reviewing information security policies and systems to ensure they are suitable for work from home arrangements

A company’s response to coronavirus will be key in how employees feel and react to the issue. The approach to risk management in a developing situation must be well-considered, with regular review of control measures in light of changes in the risk of transmission.

It is essential that businesses put in place clear and effective means of communication with staff which focuses on their welfare while putting employee health, safety and wellbeing at the forefront of decision-making.