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What is Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Coronavirus is a large group of viruses which cause a range of illnesses from the common cold through to more severe respiratory infections such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). COVID-19 is a new illness which belongs to this group of viruses.

What are the symptoms?

The following symptoms may develop in the 14 days after exposure to someone who has COVID-19:-

  • Cough;
  • Difficulty in breathing;
  • Fever

The symptoms may be more severe in older people or those with chronic or underlying health conditions.

General Housekeeping in the workplace

Employers may wish to reinforce general housekeeping guidelines to their employees. Examples may include:

    • Ensuring employee’s contact details and emergency contact details are up to date;
    • Remind employees to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and hot water throughout the day and ensure that there are clean facilities available for employees to use;
    • Provide sanitiser gel and disposable tissues;
    • Remind employees to use a tissue to catch any coughs or sneezes and ensure that there are sufficient bins available for employees to easily dispose of tissues to discourage for example, used tissues being left on desks or work surfaces;
    • Ensure that the work area, common areas such as toilets and kitchens as well as high-contact areas such as door handles and telephones are regularly cleaned with disinfectant;
    • Have clear guidance for employees to follow if they become ill at work and make sure managers are alert to and aware of these guidelines;
    • Ensure managers have a good understanding of Company policies dealing with sick pay, absence reporting, annual leave, and time off for dependants;
    • Consider whether business travel is essential and ensure that the Foreign Office travel guidelines are adhered to;
    • Keep up to date with the Government guidelines.


What if an employee becomes ill at work?

It is important that employers have a clear and well communicated strategy in place for dealing with employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or who become ill whilst at work.

In general, the advice is that employees who become unwell at work should inform their employer and use their own mobile phone to contact their GP and/or 111. The employee should explain their symptoms and highlight any risk factors e.g. if they have recently travelled to a high risk area, or if they have had close contact with somebody who has. They should then follow the advice given to them.

The employee should try to isolate as much as possible by moving away from other people (at least 2 metres away) and if possible open windows to ventilate the area. They should try to avoid touching anything and if they have to use the bathroom they should, where possible, use separate facilities.

If the employee has any tissues to be disposed of, these should be placed in a plastic bag and retained until the employee has been tested for COVID-19. If the test is negative, the bag can be disposed of in the usual way.

If the test is positive, the local Public Health England public health team will give you advice on what to do with the rubbish.

If an employee does test positive for COVID-19, employers should contact their PHE public health team who will provide further instructions.

Sick pay

The employer’s usual sick leave and pay entitlements will apply if someone has tested positive for COVID-19 and has followed the Company’s sickness absence policy.

Employees are able to self-certify for the first 7 days of illness and employers may wish to be flexible about the time limits for supplying further medical documentation as employees may not be able to easily obtain or submit medical certificates if they are in isolation. Self-isolating and sick pay Employees are entitled to SSP if they self-isolated because they have been told to do so by their GP or 111 and they provide written confirmation of this advice. It would be good practice to also pay Company Sick Pay in these circumstances under any scheme which the employer may operate.

Employees who chose to self-isolate and who are unable to provide written confirmation that this is on medical advice, are not entitled to SSP.

Proposed changes to Statutory Sick Pay

We understand the Government will be introducing emergency legislation which will mean that those employees who are unable to work because of COVID-19 will be entitled to SSP payable from the first day of absence and not from day four as is the present position. However, the law has not yet changed.

Do employees have to attend work if they are worried about catching COVID-19

Employees do not have the right to take time off because they are worried about catching COVID-19. Employers should listen to the concerns of their employees and may wish to negotiate home working or taking annual leave.

However, an employee who does not attend work and who will not agree to attend work can be treated as absent without authorisation and could lose pay or be subjected to disciplinary proceedings.

It is important for employers to consider their duties under the Equality legislation when discussing this issue with employees. An employee who has an underlying medical condition which amounts to a disability and which makes them more vulnerable to catching COVID-19 (such as an auto-immune condition), may require home working as a reasonable adjustment.

Asking employees not to attend work or to work at another location

Employers can ask employees not to attend work but they must pay them their usual salary for the duration of the absence. Employers might be able to ask employees to work at other locations if the employees terms and conditions of employment so permit.

Can employers prevent employees who have been told to self-isolate but refuse to do so from attending work?

Employers may be in breach of their health and safety obligations if they knowingly allow an individual who has been advised to self-isolate to come into work – particularly if there are other employees in the work place who are more vulnerable to infection.

In these circumstances, an employer may be able to suspend an employee who refuses to self-isolate where the medical advice is that they should do this. If there is no express contractual right to suspend, the employer should seek legal advice.

School closures

Employees have a legal right to take a reasonable amount of time off to care for dependants in an emergency situation such as a school closure. Usually, such time off would be for one or two days whilst alternative care arrangements are put in place. There is no right for employees to be paid for this time off but an employer’s policy may provide for paid leave.

This type of leave is not designed to cover longer periods of absence so if an employee is likely to require a prolonged period of absence, they should negotiate this with their employer as they may be able to take annual leave, unpaid leave or change their working arrangements to allow, for example, home working. However, longer periods of leave may be considered as reasonable if the employee can show that there were no other reasonably workable options and that the employee had to look after the children themselves.

Employees should not be dismissed or subjected to detrimental treatment for taking time off under this right.


Employers should take care not to treat employees differently because of race or ethnicity. Employers are potentially liable for the acts of harassment by individual employees unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such harassment from occurring. Accordingly, it might be prudent to refresh and update equality policies and training.

Further reading and useful links

Acas Guidance for employers

Government website – COVID-19

This article was produced on the 12th March 2020 by our Employment team for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.