HR Expert: Coronavirus

One of my employees has recently returned from a holiday in China and their colleagues have expressed concern about their risk of exposure to the Coronavirus. Do I have to make the employee go to their doctor before I let them come back to work?

Although the current number of Coronavirus cases in the UK is very low, your client should still be aware of the risks of exposure and take measures to ensure the safety of their employees. Employers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce and so monitoring the development of the situation is a must so that action can be taken where necessary.

Measures taken should be appropriate to the level of risk posed and so all employers will need to consider how their work practices may put their employees at risk of exposure to the virus. Those who require employees to travel to China on business may well need to postpone trips or find alternative methods of communication with their China contacts.

If, as in your client’s case, the issue is not related to business travel but is more of a personnel issue, then your client will need to consider the specific risk posed by the employee’s return. Getting in touch with the employee before they come back to work would be advisable so you can get more detail about exactly where they have been and, additionally, what their current state of health is. Clearly, if the employee is already displaying signs of illness then they should be encouraged to phone their GP and sickness absence will be processed in the normal way.

If the employee is not symptomatic, however, this does not necessarily mean that they have not contracted the virus due to the length of the incubation period which can be up to 14 days. There is currently no legal obligation to impose a precautionary suspension from work of non-symptomatic employees and any decision to do so will be down to your client. Pressure from colleagues may be influential here but should be not taken as a sufficient reason to impose a suspension.

If a GP does not certify the employee unfit for work, but your client is still concerned (particularly if it is known or suspected that the employee has had contact with someone known to have the virus) then the best advice might be to play it safe with a brief period of paid suspension on precautionary grounds.

It would be advisable to implement robust hygiene measures upon the non-symptomatic employee’s return. All employees should be made aware of the World Health Organisation’s advice on infection control which includes regularly washing hands or using hand sanitiser and especially after eating, coughing and sneezing into a tissue and immediately throwing it away and washing hands.

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