Coronavirus – what steps should employers and staff take now?

What measures can be taken now in the workplace to avoid the spread of coronavirus and what travel restrictions are currently in place?

ill woman in office coronavirus
Law firm Lewis Silkin suggests simple steps that employers should be taking towards minimising a spread of the coronavirus.

Give staff trusted information and advice

Businesses should take a role in educating staff without causing panic, for example, sending informative emails or displaying posters outlining the current situation and any government advice.

Provide safe and sensible working conditions

1. Work trips to China should be limited and employers should be looking to potentially minimise all work-related travel.
2. Organisations should consider allowing high-risk individuals to work from home, particularly if cases are confirmed near the workplace.
3. It is important that workplaces must be regularly cleaned, especially frequently-touched communal areas.

Be aware of sick leave, remote working and travel advice

1. If staff have recently travelled back from China, Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau, or have had contact with someone who has (or with someone infected with the virus), they should stay indoors, avoid contact with other people and contact NHS 111 for advice. They should not return to work until all symptoms have gone.
2. Employees who have the virus should be paid sick pay in accordance with the employer’s normal policy.  Employees who are not sick but are being requested to remain away from work may be able to work from home. Even if they cannot work from home, they should be paid their normal salary if they are well enough to work but are being requested not to attend work.
3. Employers can forbid work-related travel, but must be careful about imposing restrictions on personal travel because this might be indirect race discrimination, for example if staff are discouraged from visiting relatives in affected countries.
4. If the outbreak worsens, employers should carry out a risk assessment to gauge whether the working environment of high-risk individuals presents a risk of infection.
5. It may be possible to allow any employee who wishes to do so to work from home or to take holiday. But employers should still reserve the right to require workplace attendance on short notice, and disciplinary action could be taken if a refusal to attend work is unreasonable. 
6. If an employee refuses to come into work and is pregnant or otherwise at high risk, employers may have to be more flexible. For example, an employee might try to claim constructive unfair dismissal if there is a genuine health and safety risk from being required to attend work. However, provided employers do not act unreasonably and employees are not placed at undue risk, such claims would be unlikely to succeed.Employment advice is provided by Michael Burd, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin
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How does the virus affect immigration?

Restrictions on travel between the UK and China mean some people in the UK are unable to leave. People in China who wish to travel to the UK are currently unable to have their immigration applications processed because Visa Application Centres in China are currently closed. Those who have recently been granted UK visas, as well as people with existing status who went to China temporarily, in many cases for Chinese New Year, now cannot travel here.Home Office interim guidanceThe Home Office has published interim guidance, confirming that a free Coronavirus Immigration Helpline has been established to assist those affected by the outbreak.Chinese nationals who are in the UK with a UK visa expiry date from 24 January 2020 to 30 March 2020 will receive an automatic extension to 31 March 2020 and do not need to contact the helpline unless they need a status letter or new biometric residence permit confirming this. Chinese nationals whose visas expire between the same dates will be allowed to switch from Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer to Tier 2 General without having to return to China.British citizens, Chinese citizens and those resident in China who currently have passports and other documents with the Visa Application Centres in China will have the return of their documents prioritised when they re-open, and should apply for emergency travel documents if necessary in the meantime

Who is most at risk of catching coronavirus?

Although there remains some uncertainty, those at most risk of becoming seriously ill if they catch the coronavirus appear to include older people, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory or immune problems.

Helpline available

Others who are affected by the situation, including those who need to travel to the UK urgently should contact the helpline for advice. Sponsors of employees who authorise absences related to the coronavirus outbreak are not required to report this on the sponsor management system, and will not have compliance action taken against them, even where an employee is absent from work without pay for four weeks or more. Practically however, it will be prudent for sponsors to keep relevant correspondence and other evidence on the employee's HR file so it is clear in a sponsor audit that the absences were authorised and related to the outbreak, rather than for some other reason.

Check ongoing updates to guidance

The guidance is quite high level and does not cover all situations, so contact the helpline to get clarity on specific issues as they arise. Changes to the guidance should be monitored as the situation evolves and potentially more countries introduce travel restrictions. It seems possible that the automatic visa extension provision may need to be extended beyond 31 March if the situation has not been resolved by then. At a later date, more detailed policy guidance will likely need to be written into the Immigration Rules and caseworker policy documents to provide clear instructions for those who could otherwise be adversely affected, for example because they end up with excess absences for indefinite leave or nationality purposes. The Home Office also needs to ensure that relevant guidance is communicated effectively both to the public and to Home Office staff.Immigration advice is provided by Andrew Osborne, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin 

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