With the latest government reports suggesting that up to one fifth of the UK workforce could be absent at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, North East employers are being reminded of their duty of care to their whole workforce if any individual employees are identified as being at risk of contracting it.

Sarah Hall, partner in the specialist employment team at Hay & Kilner Law Firm, is advising regional employers to stay on top of the latest official advice about the developing issue and to ensure their managers know what to do if any concerns arise about potential infection.

The current Government and NHS guidance is for anyone returning from infected countries or areas to self-isolate by staying at home and to not interact with others in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Sarah Hall says: “With the North East economy being a net exporter, international travel to and from the region is an everyday part of many firms’ operations, and the likelihood is that employees of some of our businesses will have been in affected areas in recent weeks.

“Self-isolation is the most effective way of preventing the virus from spreading and you would expect that most people would heed that advice, but if any employee with an identified risk of infection is unwilling to do this for any reason, their employer has to consider what appropriate and careful action might be required to safeguard the rest of their workforce.

“The employer should first of all consider whether it has a contractual right to require the employee to stay at home, and even if there is no such right, it is unlikely to be a breach of contract to require an employee to stay at home in these circumstances.

“However, to stay on the right side of employment law, there must be reasonable and non-discriminatory grounds for concern about any potential issues arising and the matter must be dealt with appropriately and sensitively.”

Issues surrounding the pay entitlement of anyone having to go into self-isolation have also been raised by many businesses.

Sarah Hall continues: “Consideration would need to be given to the terms of a particular employment contract, but generally speaking, if an employee is diagnosed with coronavirus, or is otherwise too unwell to work, they would be entitled to sick pay, but if they are not unfit to work, then they may not be.

“However the conciliation service Acas and many other organisations are suggesting that it’s “good practice” to treat self-isolation as sick leave or agree for the time to be taken as holiday in order to mitigate the risk of an employee who should be self-isolating coming to work because they want to keep earning.

“Some employees are able to work from home and, if this is agreed, they are obviously entitled to be paid for that work, and if they have been suspended on health and safety grounds, it is likely they have the right to continue to receive full pay.

“Employers should be keeping their workforce updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace, should ensure their managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and must be clear on the relevant processes to follow if any concerns are raised.”

Established in 1946, Hay & Kilner is one of North East England’s leading independent law firms and provides a full range of legal services to businesses and individuals from both within and outside the region.