Covid-19: tips for employers

Employers need to know the rules when it comes to paying staff for self-quarantining or asking them to travel on business to high risk areas. Kate Palmer, associate director advisory at Pensinsula, provides useful tips for employers on dealing with Covid-19, the current strain of the coronavirus

It has taken just a month for coronavirus to snowball from a handful of cases in China to a ‘global health emergency,’ as declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The virus has already hit the UK, with the number of confirmed cases reaching 36 and the PM calling its first Cobra meeting to assess the situation. So it’s a good idea to get to know the symptoms and dangers so you can reduce the risks to your staff.

Here’s what you need to know. Firstly, what is the virus?

Covid-19 is a new strain of the coronavirus, a respiratory virus that affects people’s breathing and lungs. Experts think the virus started in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where workers contracted it from contact with animals.

The main symptoms are:

  • dry cough;
  • sore throat;
  • high temperature;
  • tiredness; and
  • difficulty breathing (in severe cases).

The virus spreads through droplets in the air when someone coughs or sneezes. People can catch it if they breathe in the droplets or brush surfaces that the droplets landed on, and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes (scientists say we touch our face around 16 times an hour).

Unless you, your staff, or people you know have recently travelled to a high-risk area like Italy, China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or Thailand, right now it’s unlikely you’ll get infected, although this is a fast-changing situation and may change quickly.

As the risk is still growing, it is important to be ready for every possible scenario.

So let’s answer the most common coronavirus questions asked by employers like you.

1. Should I let staff who have been to Asia return to work?

Current government guidance is that people who have returned from China’s Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, within the last 14 days, or other high-risk areas since 19 February 2020, should stay at home, even if they do not show any symptoms.

People returning from less-affected areas should only stay at home if they have symptoms like a cough, fever or shortness of breath.

To see an up-to-date list of the countries and areas that pose a risk to travellers and returning employees, visit the UK government’s website.

2. Should I pay staff who self-isolate (stay at home)?

No, there is no obligation to pay employees who are not ill but have self-isolated or been placed in quarantine. However, you may decide to apply your normal sick pay procedures.

3. An employee just returned from Hong Kong without symptoms. I am worried and want them to self-isolate. Should I pay them?

If you decide to send an employee who is not ill home as a precautionary measure, you would have to give them full pay unless your contract says otherwise for this specific situation.

4. What happens if I have to close my business temporarily?

If you have the relevant clause in your employment documentation, you can place employees on ‘lay-off’, which means they do not come to work and you only pay them statutory guarantee pay where required.


Are you an auditor or accountant, read FRC warning on coronavirus risk to audits in China

5. Can I stop my staff from travelling to affected areas?

What your employees do in their own time is largely out of your control, unfortunately. You can cancel a period of annual leave, but you risk upsetting the employee as they may already have paid for their travel.

6. Can I still send people to China on business?

If your business works with companies in China and elsewhere in Asia, you may want to play it safe and avoid meeting with their staff for now. You should also consider postponing any business trips to high-risk areas and see if you can carry out meetings using Skype or phone instead.

If your staff need to travel to China, stay in close contact with them throughout their visit, and help them find urgent medical care if they start to suffer symptoms.

7. I currently have staff working abroad. Should I bring them back?

Where possible, arrange for any workers based in China to return to the UK. You may want to do the same for those in other severely affected areas, like North Italy, Iran or South Korea.

Remember, the government has said that people returning from high risk countries should stay at home and call NHS 111. Those returning from other countries, such as Japan, can attend work if they do not have symptoms.

But if you think staff might have been in contact with someone who has the virus, it may be safer to either ask them to work from home or suspend them on full pay until it is clear that they are symptom-free.

8. What hygiene measures should be taken?

One of the ways you can stop the spread of a viral infection in the workplace is by promoting clean, healthy working habits. The World Health Organisation’s recommendations are to:

cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when coughing or sneezing;

throw away used tissues into a closed bin immediately;

clean your hands using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water; and

avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough.

What’s next?

The coronavirus outbreak is still in its early stages and scientists are working hard to predict how the disease could develop.

Can it be contained? Could it mutate? Is it, like the flu, now going to rear its head every winter? Experts do not know yet, and it will take at least a year to develop a vaccine. World Health Organisation has said a vaccine ‘cannot be made overnight’.

For now, employers need to prepare for anything. Regularly check the UK government’s coronavirus (Covid-19) guidance for important updates, as medical officers may introduce new safety rules that employers and citizens need to meet.

By following the latest guidance, you will be in a good position to protect your business and workers should the virus become a greater threat in the future.

About the author

Kate Palmer is associate director, advisory at Peninsula

Essential information: UK government’s coronavirus (Covid-19) guidance


Coronavirus Toolkit

Croner-i produces a special Coronavirus Toolkit with step-by-step guidance for employers including tips on emergency management, recovery planning, self-isolation and sick pay



Kate Palmer |Associate director of advisory, Peninsula

Kate Palmer CIPD BA (Hons) is associate director of advisory at Peninsula&...

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