COVID-19: Self-isolation and sick pay, PPE

Domestically, much of the focus of the past couple of days has centered on how best to deal with the situation from a labour and employment perspective, as employers seek to balance the need to protect their workforce from uncertainty, while conducting BAU as far as possible.

Bob Cordran, a partner at international law firm, Dorsey & Whitney, has been advising companies in the UK on the matter. He says there are a number of things employers should be doing right now to try and stay ahead of the situation.

"In the short term: Employers should have procedures in place to protect employees’ health and safety, which could include ensuring there are facilities for hand-washing, and providing hand sanitiser, tissues and wipes for cleaning work equipment. What is appropriate will vary depending on the workplace. Where travel is planned to affected areas, it should be considered whether it is absolutely necessary.Where employees can work from home, this may be encouraged or even required if there are building closures or, in the future, restrictions on movement, school closures, etc. This makes it important for employers to have suitable procedures in place for homeworking including ensuring that the tech is in place to allow it to work smoothly. Employers should also make sure that there are clear procedures for reporting sickness and sick pay," Cordran says.

Sick pay

This is an issue that is getting a lot of attention, particularly if employees fear that they will not be paid if they self-isolate.

"The positive message here is that the government has said that statutory sick pay is payable if the NHS 111 service or a doctor has advised self-isolation and the Health Secretary has indicated that it would be payable for anyone self-isolating for medical reasons (although there is some doubt as to whether this is strictly always the case)," Cordran says.

"Even where an employee is ill, SSP is usually only paid after three days of unpaid sickness absence. Again, this could be an incentive not to stay away from work when ill so it is positive that the Government has today announced that statutory sick pay will be paid from the first day of sickness absence, rather than the fourth day (as is usually the case) to close this gap. The Prime Minister said in the House of Commons today [4th March] that those who self-isolate should not be “penalised for doing the right thing”. However, an employee needs to earn £118 a week to qualify for SSP, so many low-paid and/or part-time employees and some on 'zero hours' contracts (where there is no guarantee of work) do not qualify."

Going forward, he says, school shutdowns may likely raise urgent childcare issues for employees with children, many of whom will want to work from home for obvious reasons.

"This may require some flexibility since homeworking arrangements often stipulate that the employee is not caring for children (particularly young ones) while working from home," Cordran says.

This government's emergency legislation will be temporary and is only designed to respond to the outbreak; it will lapse when it is no longer required.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs during PMQs: "I can today announce that the Health Secretary will bring forward, as part of our emergency legislation measures, to allow the payment of Statutory Sick Pay from the very first day you are sick instead of four days under the current rules.

"No one should be penalised for doing the right thing."

Johnson had earlier explained that we are not at the point where large numbers of people will need to self-isolate, "but that may of course come if large numbers have the symptoms".

"If they stay at home, they are helping to protect all of us by preventing the spread of the virus."

As of 14:00 on 4th March, a total of 16,659 people have been tested in the UK, of 85 were positive (some of which have since recovered, as per the scenario globally).

Protective equipment

Meanwhile, the main focus at the global level is the disruption to the supply of personal protective equipment in some countries. This is not a UK-specific concern, but one the World Health Organisation raises for healthcare workers in the most ill-equipped and at-risk countries, as it seeks to boost production and secure allocations of PPE equipment there.

Global numbers as at 4th March: 93,090 cases, of which a slightly higher 2,223 in the previous 24 hours, 2,103 of which were from outside of China.

More on the PPE issue here: https://www.who.int/diagnostics_laboratory/EUL/en/

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