Coronavirus – what now?

Our last article on the coronavirus centred around sick leave and the prospect of at home working in the wake of the outbreak. With the delay phase of the virus now being entered, remote working is fast becoming a reality for most employers and their workforce.

Whilst the Prime Minister has stopped short of enforcing mandatory at home working, several employers are taking matters into their own hands and taking steps to put in place remote working. The last few weeks have shown us that once a single case of coronavirus is identified in the workplace this quickly leads to widespread panic with all staff then being sent home for a period of time so that offices/premises can undergo a ‘deep clean’ and/or for exposed staff to self-isolate in an effort to avoid spreading it to others. Commuters are also becoming increasingly concerned about the risks associated with public transport to and from the office. The response has therefore been to increasingly implement at home working where possible.

The rate and remit of the coronavirus spread in the UK will depend upon the measures introduced by the government and the timescale for when such measures are introduced. We have already seen school and nursery closures in Ireland. If our government follows suit how will such closures affect the workforce, most of whom will already be working from home? How will staff manage working and having to provide childcare/manage childcare arrangements? And for staff that struggle to carry out a full day’s work as a result will this affect their entitlement to full pay? The short answer is presently that there is no hard and fast rule; employers will need to consider each matter on a case by case basis whilst ensuring that they adopt a consistent approach to avoid allegations of unfair treatment or discrimination.

As a starting point, employees should not automatically face disciplinary sanctions for not being able to work as normal were schools and nurseries to be closed. The most practical way forward would appear to be for employers to adopt a sensible approach to such situations and allow employees to work flexibly as much as possible to accommodate their childcare responsibilities. Should an employee adopt the stance that they will not be able to carry out any or sufficient work at all on a working day due to childcare issues (to include on an evening) that employee should be encouraged to take that time as part of their paid holiday allowance. Failing that, employers may be within their rights to treat such time off as unpaid leave, however, they should tread carefully before implementing such measures and we would strongly recommend that they seek legal advice first. Hopefully for the majority of workers this will not be the case and most people will be able to work flexibly so that their workload can be met.

Given the classification of coronavirus as a pandemic it is clear that world is now facing months of severe disruption and challenging times. As part of the ongoing effort to tackle the coronavirus and delay its ‘peak’ we can expect to see the introduction of increased social distancing measures. For example, today has already seen the announcement of all elite football in England being suspended until 3 April 2020 at the earliest.  During this time it is important for employers to continue communicating with staff openly at each step of the way to make sure their staff are clear on the policies that will be adopted going forward and how they might be affected. Employers should also consider implementing suitable written home and flexible working policies if such policies are not already in place.

This article is designed to be for general information/guidance only. For detailed advice on employment measures during the coronavirus outbreak please contact Louise Rogers at [email protected].