Information from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Public Health England is being updated daily: see here. This includes details on the spread of the virus in the UK and worldwide, and most importantly, advice for those who have travelled from Wuhan and Hubei Province in China as well as travel from other parts of China and other specified areas which now includes Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau.
For those who have travelled within the last 14 days to Wuhan and Hubei Province the advice is to stay indoors, avoid contact with other people and to call NHS 111. Similar advice is given for the broader specified areas above, but only if an individual has developed a cough, fever or shortness of breath.
The advice states very clearly that this means individuals should not go to work, school or public areas. So, what does this mean for employers?
Provide guidance for employees
Employers must consider the potential impact on their workforce and issue appropriate guidance, referring to the Government website above to ensure that any guidance is up-to-date. For many businesses, working from home is an easy option for those who have to self-isolate. For those who must self-isolate but are not able to work remotely, they should remain at home, normally on full pay unless their contract of employment specifically allows for no pay in such circumstances.
The advice could be different for those who are absent from work because they are unable to return from holiday, such as those stuck onboard cruise ships. Unless they are displaying symptoms, the isolation advice does not apply, and normal unauthorised absence rules could apply. However, employers should always act in a ‘reasonable’ way, and this is clearly a highly unusual situation which the employee could not have foreseen. Therefore, agreeing an extension of holiday, or that the time will be made up at a later day, or simply accepting that the individual is absent for reasons beyond their control may be better options.
What if an individual refuses to remain away from work?
Employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of all employees, therefore if an individual is known to have travelled from Wuhan or Hubei Province and tries to attend work, the employer would be justified in insisting that the employee remains away, in line with government guidance.
Beware of any racially discriminatory behaviour
A final point is to be alert to any behaviour that could be considered racial harassment or otherwise discriminatory, and ensure it is dealt with effectively in line with the employer’s policies. Some Chinese-owned enterprises in the UK are reporting a negative impact on their business, and some commentators are concerned that Asian employees may be subjected to harassment or discrimination. Harassment occurs when an environment is created which is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive, in relation to a protected characteristic: clearly race in this case.
In a nutshell
This is an unusual and dynamic situation. Employers should keep themselves updated on a daily basis as to the official advice, and ensure that employees are fully encouraged and supported to implement that advice (including the ability to work remotely, where possible, or to be flexible around contractual entitlements to leave where remote working is not practical). Employers should maintain regular communication with any affected employee, consider reasonable and practical responses to the situation that the individual is in and adopt robust measures where employees face harassment or discrimination as a result of their ethnicity.