Coronavirus (COVID-19) update – 16 March 2020 – A guide for employers

Coronavirus (COVID-19) update – 16 March 2020 – A guide for employers

Since the email updates issued over the course of the past few weeks the UK government has changed the risk level to from moderate to high.

This is a very fast-moving situation and the advice from government and agencies is changing constantly. The aim of this update is to focus on the questions which are being asked most frequently, and to which the answers are unlikely to change.

I will be issuing regular email updates to ensure that you are aware of government advice as this evolves. At the end of this update there is a list of links to useful websites that are updated regularly.

Sick pay
As advised last week, the rules around Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) were changed with effect from Friday 13th March. This means that SSP will be available to anyone isolating themselves from “other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus”.

The government has announced that:

• the usual three ‘waiting days’ will be temporarily suspended and that SSP will therefore be payable from the first day of sickness absence, and not from the fourth day
• smaller employers will be able to reclaim the first 14 days of SSP from the government

What is not known is when either of these changes will come into effect, and whether they will be backdated.

Self-isolation and sick pay
Employees and workers must be paid SSP if they need to self-isolate because:

• they have coronavirus
• they have coronavirus symptoms, for example a high temperature or new continuous cough
• they’ve been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111

If an employer offers enhanced sick pay, i.e. higher than SSP, then the employees will be entitled to benefit from that if they are absent due to sickness. However, if an employee chooses to self-isolate then the entitlement may be to SSP only. This will depend on the terms of the employment contract.

If an employee or worker cannot work, they should tell their employer:
• as soon as possible
• the reason
• how long they’re likely to be off for

The employer might need to be flexible if they require evidence from the employee or worker. For example, someone might not be able to provide a sick note (‘fit note’) if they’ve been told to self-isolate for more than 7 days.

If someone returns from an affected area, for example China or Italy, should self-isolate and either:
• use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service
• call 111, for NHS advice

Staff aged over 70
Yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that every Briton over the age of 70 will be told “within the coming weeks” to stay at home for an extended period to shield them from coronavirus. The ‘extended period’ has been reported as being between 12 weeks and four months.

For any employees that are aged over 70, they could be required to work from home during this period of self-isolation, if that is practical. However, if they are unable to work from home then it is likely that they will be covered by the change in SSP rules brought in last week (covered above) which states that SSP will be available to anyone isolating themselves from “other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus”.

Workplace closures
Some businesses will face a significant disruption to their operations, to the extent that they have less work, or in some cases no work for employees. To address this, employers can ask employees to take some of their holiday, or where the employment contract provides, introduce temporary layoffs and/or short time working. This is covered in more detail below.

Using holiday
Employers have the right to tell employees when to take holiday if they need to. If the employer does decide to do this, they must tell staff at least twice as many days before as the amount of days they need people to take. For example, if they want to close for 5 days, they should tell everyone at least 10 days before.

This could affect holiday staff have already booked or planned. So, employers should:

• explain clearly why they need to close
• try and resolve anyone’s worries about how it will affect their holiday entitlement or plans

Layoffs & short time working
Where the contract of employment contains a layoff clause, employees can be temporary laid off from work. This clause may also allow the employer to reduce an employee’s hours of work and to reduce their pay on a proportionate basis.

‘Short-time’ working is defined as when an employee’s hours of work are reduced, and they are paid less than half a week’s pay.

Where the contract provides, there is no limit to how long an employee can be put on reduced hours. However, if they are laid off or put on ‘short-time working’ as defined above, they can apply to the employer for a redundancy payment after:

• 4 consecutive weeks
• 6 weeks in a 13-week period

Statutory guarantee payments
Employees that are laid off will be entitled to a ‘statutory guarantee payment’. This is currently £29.00 per day and is payable for the first five days of layoff in a three-month period (a total of £145). This cannot be reclaimed from the government.

Advice to staff
Current government advice is that if an employee has symptoms, they should state at home for 7 days if they have either:

• a high temperature
• a new continuous cough

The advice states that individuals should not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital, and that they do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them they are staying at home.
Staff that self-isolate will be entitled to statutory sick pay.

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