Alert March 06, 2020

Coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQs for UK Employers

Last updated March 12, 2020 

As the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to accelerate, the UK Government has confirmed that it expects the virus to present a significant challenge. Specific measures announced have included emergency changes to sick pay rules, intended to avoid employees being deterred from health precautions by financial constraints.

It is essential for employers to plan appropriately for contingencies both to discharge legal duties to employees and the public and to minimise business disruption.

The situation is evolving fast. If you need guidance on employment issues related to COVID-19 or would like to speak to an adviser, contact us on DG-UKHRhotline@goodwinlaw.com.

1. What advance steps should employers be taking now?

It is important for employers to:

  • implement adequate health and safety measures, including undertaking a risk assessment. Additional measures may be needed for pregnant employees or those with existing health vulnerabilities;
  • designate a person or team responsible for the COVID-19 response and for implementing emergency measures such as workplace closure;
  • put in place a contingency plan for workplace closure and, where practicable, facilitate home working. Make sure that employees have all necessary equipment and that contact details are up to date. A trial run is a sensible precaution;
  • keep on top of the latest UK Government guidance, as it evolves;
  • communicate clearly and regularly with staff;
  • decide on an approach to home-working and sick pay and notify staff;
  • plan how they will handle employees who are high-risk or subject to quarantine; and
  • keep business travel under review.

Some of these measures are considered in more detail below.

2. What health and safety measures should employers take?

Risk levels for COVID-19 will vary for different work environments and employers should conduct a risk assessment to identify and implement appropriate risk mitigation measures.

At the time of writing, there is no vaccine for COVID-19 (though scientists are working to develop one). The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. While there is currently no scientific consensus on how COVID-19 is transmitted, conventional methods for avoiding the spread of flu and the common cold apply.

Extra precautions may be needed where the work involves regular contact with large groups of employees or with members of the public. Risk mitigation measures could include reducing face-to-face meetings or requiring confirmations from workplace visitors that they do not fall within Government guidance triggering self-isolation.

It is sensible to remind staff of basic steps that can be taken to guard against illness, such as Public Health England’s "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it” method of preventing influenza and other communicable illnesses (“Catch” any sneezes in a tissue, “Bin” any tissues immediately and “Kill” the virus by washing hands with soap and warm water).

Employers may also want to provide additional cleaning materials in the workplace (tissues, hand-sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and so on) to encourage employees to take preventative steps.

Further information is available in the UK Government Guidance for Employers.

Vulnerable Workers

Additional considerations apply where employers are aware that particular employees may have increased vulnerability to COVID-19, such as pregnant workers or those with pre-existing respiratory problems or compromised immune systems. In these cases, a specific risk assessment should be undertaken and reasonable protective steps taken, in consultation with the staff involved and with occupational health input where appropriate.

For pregnant employees, where changes to working conditions cannot adequately mitigate risk, the employer may need to offer temporary alternative employment or suspend the worker on medical grounds (with full pay). 

3. Do employers have to pay staff who are off work due to COVID-19?

Whether, and how much, employers must pay staff for absence caused by COVID-19 will vary according to the precise circumstances. The position is summarised in the table below.

Aside from strict legal entitlements, employers will be wise to consider broader policy objectives in determining whether to pay staff. While press coverage indicates a wide divergence in practice between large employers, strict adherence to the legal rules may prove to be a false economy compared to the cost of triggering a workplace closure.

UK rules entitle employees to statutory minimum sick pay (SSP) (currently, £94.25 per week increasing to £95.85 on 6 April 2020) provided certain conditions are met.

In the budget on 11 March 2020, the UK Government announced a number of measures in relation to assist businesses when employees are unable to work due to COVID-19:

  • the normal requirement for three “waiting days” before SSP becomes payable will be temporarily waived, so that it will apply from the first day of absence from work;
  • everyone advised to self-isolate under current government guidance will be eligible to receive SSP. Legislation to implement this has already been passed, with effect from 13 March 2020;
  • individuals who are caring for those within the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate will be eligible to receive SSP;
  • individuals will be able to obtain a sick note from NHS 111 rather than being required to visit their doctor in person;
  • businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be able to claim back from the government the cost of providing statutory sick pay to any employee of work due to coronavirus will for up to 14 days.

Entitlement to any sick pay in excess of SSP will be determined by the contract of employment of the relevant employees.

Reason for Absence Legal Right to Pay Other Factors
Actual or suspected COVID-19 infection SSP or contractual sick pay entitlement, whichever is more generous Usual sick pay rules apply. UK Government guidance is to relax requirements for medical evidence in view of its instruction to suspected carriers not to visit a doctor.
Self-isolation in line with Government guidance, medical recommendation, or a Public Health England notice

Entitled to SSP 

Theoretically, no right to pay in excess of SSP (although there is some scope for argument).

However, if the employee is working at home by agreement or the employer has directed the employee to remain at home in these circumstances (which is likely and recommended), then they are entitled to full pay.

There is a strong policy argument to paying for this absence, irrespective of the theoretical position.

ACAS guidance on Coronavirus confirms that payment would be considered best practice.

UK Government guidance is to relax requirements for medical evidence in view of its instruction to suspected carriers not to visit a doctor.

Employee fear/concern (no ill health, outside medicial or UK Government guidance)

No right to sick pay unless working at home by agreement.

If instructed to attend and refuses, then in most cases there will be no right to any pay unless home working by agreement.

Refusal to attend work when directed without lawful excuse is a disciplinary matter. However, employers will be expected to act reasonably. It is unlikely that harsh action will be viewed sympathetically by an employment tribunal.
Employer request

In most cases, full contractual pay will apply, unless otherwise agreed with employees.

Specific contract provisions may change this position (e.g. for lay off or under zero hours contracts) but will be rare.

ACAS guidance confirms that it will be best practice to pay in full.
Lack of childcare (e.g. school closure)

No right to sick pay.

The statutory right to unpaid tie off work for dependents is likely to apply (or any more generous contractual entitlement)

The statutory entitlement is to a "reasonable" amount of time off work. This will be fact sensitive.
Travel disruption No right to pay unless home working by agreement. Employers will be expected to act reasonably and explore sensible alternatives with the employee.


4. Can employers use a "lay-off" to send staff home temporarily without pay?

In general, UK employees cannot be “laid off” without pay unless specific provisions are contained in their contract of employment. It is rare that contractual provisions of this type are in place and there are statutory constraints on how they can be used.

5. Should employers cancel or defer business travel?

Foreign Office (FCO) guidance on travel should be checked regularly here.

For the areas where the FCO is advising against all travel, business trips obviously should be cancelled or postponed. Failure to do this is likely to breach duties to the employee in question and potentially the broader workforce and others.

For the areas where the FCO is advising against all but essential travel, business trips should be cancelled or postponed, if possible. This decision will require a balancing of all relevant factors, including the destination, businesses’ needs, and an individual employee’s circumstances and concerns. Employees should be directed to follow self-isolation guidance in all cases.

Employers should take particular care in respect of travel if the employee (or someone they live with) is at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they are exposed to COVID-19 because of age, pregnancy, or a pre-existing medical condition such as respiratory problems. Employers should consult with the individual, their doctors, and in some cases, an occupational health specialist to assess whether travel can safely proceed.

6. How should employers communicate with staff?

Employers should consider in advance and notify to staff their general approach to company sick pay including for self-isolation within UK Government guidance. Additional communications on the approach to office closures, home working and absence through school closures may also be sensible.

Employers should communicate with staff in an accurate and even-handed way. This may be a stressful situation for some employees and employers should avoid unnecessarily causing undue anxiety. In particular:

  • employers should stay informed of official UK Government guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care and the FCO;
  • managers and HR should not provide medical opinions about the effects and spread of COVID-19; and
  • in most cases, communications and advice should reflect only the UK Government or occupational health guideline and other official sources. Misinformation should be corrected promptly if it arises.

7. Can employers send home employees who are at high risk of carrying COVID-19?

Employees should be sent home if their circumstances fall within current UK Government guidance triggering self-isolation (see UK Government Guidance for Employers) or who are otherwise advised by PHE or a doctor to self-isolate until they have been advised by doctors that the incubation period is over and all symptoms have cleared.

There is a theoretical risk that sending an employee home when they are medically fit to work may be a breach of contract or even constructive dismissal. However, the practical risk of a successful claim being established is outweighed by the risks of allowing the employee to attend work.

Sending employees home in circumstances where UK Government guidance does not currently recommend self-isolation carries a higher risk and further advice should be sought.

8. What personal information can employers collect and share about employees who may be carrying COVID-19?

Collecting and sharing information about the health of a worker is highly regulated under UK and EU law, including under the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR).

Of course, if an employee is suspected of carrying COVID-19, then risks of immediate harm to your employees and public health, and of breaching the duties of care that you owe to prevent that harm, may need to take precedence over data protection considerations. But advance consideration of the issues may help you mitigate risk.

Headline points on GDPR compliance are:

  • A complete exemption from GDPR applies where serious harm to a person is likely and a health care professional has indicated that processing the health information is necessary to prevent that harm. This may apply if, for example, Public Health England is involved in tracing the contact chain of a carrier.
  • In other cases:

    • processing of health information which is necessary to prevent harm to employees and the public will be lawful under specific rules covering monitoring of epidemics and the discharge of legal duties;
    • the usual requirements for processing data will apply, including as to proportionality and the existence of appropriate documents such as privacy notices, a data protection policy and data retention policies. Compliant employers will already have documents these in place; and
    • a risk assessment should be conducted and appropriate to mitigate the privacy impact should be implemented. In some urgent cases, this may simply be impracticable but could be performed now in advance of need.

  • In all cases, information should be anonymised, or a pseudonym used, if at all possible, i.e. where this does not defeat the purpose of the processing. In cases such as precautionary office shutdown, it will not usually be necessary to identify the carrier publicly and it is important not to do so.

9. Can employers take action if employees do not perform their duties without good reason?

It is likely that some employees will be unwilling to attend work or undertake business travel to regions currently considered safe, due to fears about COVID-19. Where these actions are outside the recommendations of UK Government guidance, they potentially amount to a breach of contract by the employee and grounds for disciplinary action.

However, knee-jerk reactions by employers are still likely to attract legal liability. In all cases, employers should speak to staff, try to understand and address their concerns and reach a sensible compromise. Consideration should be given to whether any special factors exist relevant to that employee that merit different treatment.

Any disciplinary action should involve an appropriate process in line with ACAS guidance.

10. Can employers stop employees from taking holidays to high-risk areas?

This is a grey area. Employers do not have a clear right to restrict travel to high-risk areas outside working time. However, employees can be required to notify travel to these areas to the employer and could potentially be required to take extra holiday or unpaid leave to cover any consequent self-isolation period. If the resultant extended period of leave is more than the employer can accommodate, then it may be possible to refuse the leave.

Consideration will need to be given to whether implementation of any such policy is indirectly discriminatory (see question 11 below).

11. Does the COVID-19 present discrimination risks?

Employers should be conscious of the risks of discrimination in how both they and employees respond to COVID-19.

There have unfortunately been reports across the world of racist abuse being directed at those perceived to be Chinese. Employers may be liable for the discriminatory acts of employees and should be vigilant. If needed, employer should remind employees of their equality obligations by reference to appropriate policy documents and should take swift action if problems arise.

Any policies in response to COVID-19 should apply to all employees and be based on potential risks, as assessed in line with official guidance, otherwise employers risk direct discrimination claims. For example, if an employer were to target Chinese employees for additional precautions, rather than those with recent travel links to affected areas, this would be a very significant discrimination risk.

For certain countries, the UK Government currently recommends self-isolation only if symptoms develop (Category 2 Countries) (see UK Government List of Affected Countries and Recommendations).

A policy requiring employees without symptoms who have recently travelled to Category 2 Countries to remain at home for 14 days may be indirectly discriminatory. This will be the case if it disproportionately affects staff of a particular ethnic origin (such as those whose nationality or ethnicity is linked to those countries). The same may be true of policies described at question 10 above). It will however be open to an employer to argue that the policy was a justifiable and reasonable step to take. Where policies are in line with UK Government recommendations, employers are very likely to be able to succeed in this argument. However, precautionary measures that exceed UK Government guidance should be carefully scrutinised to ensure that they are legitimate and proportionate.

Employers will also need to ensure that their decisions are consistent and proportionate in respect of home working, sick pay and action in respect of employees who do not attend work for reasons other than actual or suspected infection.

12. Where can employers find additional information?

UK Government Guidance for Employers

ACAS Employer Guidance on Coronavirus

UK Government List of Affected Countries and Recommendations

FCO Travel Advice

UK Government Coronavirus Action Plan

If you need guidance on employment issues related to COVID-19 or would like to speak to an adviser contact us on DG-UKHRhotline@goodwinlaw.com.