Understand how to support your business and workforce through a global health emergency
The new coronavirus disease, now officially named Covid-19, was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization in January 2020. As the virus continues to spread, it could pose a threat to some organisations.
This factsheet provides an overview of the current coronavirus situation. It explains what the virus is and gives advice on how employers should respond to the threat and support employees by being prepared, looking after employees’ health and safety, precautions for employees returning from travel, and developing flexible resourcing plans.
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (Cov). The official name for this new disease, not previously seen in humans, is Covid-19. It was first identified in Wuhan City, in Hubei province, China.
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. As this new strain causes a new illness, it's not known exactly how it spreads from person to person, but similar viruses spread by cough droplets.
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death. Generally, more severe cases occur in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with longterm conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.
On 30 January 2020, the risk to the UK public was raised from low to moderate by the UK Chief Medical Officers, but the risk to individuals remains low.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus a global health emergency. Although it is spreading around the world, and spreading quickly, it is yet to be classed as a ‘pandemic’. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is ‘the worldwide spread of a disease’. It's still unclear how severe the virus is, and how far it will spread.
Currently the main concern for UK employers is dealing with travel to and from affected areas. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against all travel to Hubei province and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China, the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo in South Korea and several small towns in Northern Italy. The FCO has also advised all UK nationals to leave China where possible. Keep up to date with the latest advice on travel.
As the virus continues to spread, it could pose a significant threat to some organisations. We live in a global economy and many employers have operations or supply chains based overseas. The level of risk an organisation may face will depend on whether it is directly or indirectly affected in this way. An organisation may also be affected if it employs people who have travelled back, or been in contact with, anyone who has returned from an area affected by the virus. If the virus becomes a pandemic it could lead to wider disruptions with suppliers and customers and to shortages of fuel and other basic commodities. There may also be disruptions to public transport.
The NHS advises:
Employees’ health, safety and well-being during a global health emergency like the coronavirus outbreak should be paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety and to provide a safe place to work, but there's also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment.
Communicate clearly to employees that they need to take precautions, avoiding travel to affected areas and/or coming into contact with infected or potentially infected people or animals. Advise them on what to do if they think they may have caught the virus.
As the likely spread of the virus continues, employers may face the following situations:
Keep up to date and follow official medical advice as it’s updated. Keep employees informed, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have returned from affected areas, or have been in contact with an infected person, or with an individual who has returned from affected areas. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers.
Implement an internal communication strategy so that employees are aware of measures that are being taken to manage the situation in your organisation.
Understand that some people may have real concerns about catching the virus, while others may have worries about family or friends stranded in, or returning from, an affected area. Try to reassure employees that there is no need to panic and the risk to the UK population remains low.
Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees, and where to signpost people to for further advice or support.
Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and well-being generally, including those through an employee assistance programme.
If the virus spreads widely and/or becomes a pandemic and the risk of infection is heightened, be prepared to step up the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Keep in mind anyone who may be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing health conditions, age, or pregnancy.
As part of your organisation’s contingency plan, explore more flexible resourcing strategies in case your business suffers staffing shortages.
Develop strategies to maximise the amount of home working to prevent the spread of infection if necessary.
Investigate ways of harnessing the use of technology to limit the amount of face-toface contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. For customer facing organisations, consider introducing or maximising the use of selfservice options and online services.
Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours to keep your business going. If this happens, you will need to comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998 to ensure appropriate length of daytime working hours, night shifts and rest breaks.
Have in place plans that will enable the organisation to operate on a skeleton staff if necessary. Identify key services and roles that are essential and can’t be put on hold, as well as projects or roles that could be temporarily stood down. Identify those individuals and managers who have transferrable skills, who can fulfil more than one function and could be allocated to more essential roles.
Carry out a resourcing risk assessment of the organisation, identifying essential areas of the business where few employees have the required skills. Training additional employees in these skills should be considered. Ensure that procedures are developed to ensure smooth handovers for employees who are filling in for colleagues in unfamiliar roles. It may be necessary to provide additional training and a risk assessment if individuals are moving to roles where there may be a healthy and safety risk.
If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements and communicate the business reasons to employees.
Acas – Coronavirus advice for employers and employees (https://www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus)
UK Government - Coronavirus: latest information and advice (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronaviurs-...)
UK Government - COVID-19: guidance for employers and businesses (https://www.gov.uk/government/publicatio...)
UK Government - Foreign travel advice (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
National Health Service - Coronavirus (COVID-19)(https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/wuhan-nove...)
World Health Organization - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak (https://www.int/emergencies/diseases/nov...)
This factsheet was written by Hazel Ferguson, CIPD Senior Communications Manager, and Rachel Suff.