COVID-19, employers, employees and individuals – Guidance and information
The presence of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 has created a great deal of unrest amongst the general population. From the reported panic buying of hand sanitiser, anti-bacterial hand wash and toilet paper to an employee being diagnosed in a workplace causing it to stop or reduce its operations, COVID-19 is having a significant impact on all parts of daily life. As at 9 am on 13 March 2020, 32,771 people in had been tested in the UK. 31,973 tested negative and 798 positive, 10 of which have since died. The UK Chief Medical Officers have now raised the public risk level to the UK to high. Based on the World Health Organisations statement that this is now a public health emergency of international concern. So, COVID-19 is not something we can ignore.
What is COVID-19 and how is it transmitted?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause diseases in animals. In some cases, the viruses jump to humans. We have already seen two others Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), make the headlines. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) preliminary findings indicate the current mortality rate for COVID-19 in the EU, the UK, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein is 20-30 per thousand people diagnosed which is less than what we saw during the SARS outbreak in 2003 but higher than that for the seasonal flu.
There is much speculation about how the current strain of the coronavirus which is prevalent started. Although the consensus appears to be that the source of COVID-19 was a wet market in Wuhan China, it is understood that the actual animal source is yet to be confirmed.
It is believed that the virus is spread in the same way as cold and flu bugs via droplets, but the exact method of transmission is not known because this is a new illness. These droplets are produced when a person coughs or sneezes and are transmitted to others when they land on surfaces and through touching i.e. via the hands. Individuals become infected with the virus when they touch their mouth, nose or eyes with hands contaminated with the droplets.
The reported symptoms of the virus are a cough, breathing difficulties and fever. There is no specific treatment for COVID-19 and antibiotics do not work against viruses. Any treatment provided is to relieve the symptoms whilst your body fights against the infection. Hence infected persons will need to stay at home until they have recovered.
Businesses – the protection of those within its undertaking.
This is not a straightforward task. To do this effectively businesses will need cooperation from their employees, visitors to their site/s, and others. Management to a large extent will be relying on others to disclose relevant personal information to enable the assessment of the potential risk from COVID-19 to their business.
Whilst businesses are not responsible for the onset of the virus, they are expected to take precautions to protect their employees and others who may work for them in line with their duties under health and safety legislation. It is unlikely that a business will be prosecuted because an employee or someone within their business contracted the virus; this would be harsh. However, some form of contact with the HSE or HSE enforcement cannot be totally ruled out if an employee contracted the virus, the business knew this, and did nothing to protect its employees and others.
Businesses should document the measures it intends to take to protect employees and others from the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a written plan. This plan should also detail the steps which will be taken in the event of one or more workers are diagnosed with COVID-19 or there is a local outbreak in their area of operation. A risk assessment should also be prepared. This should detail the potential vectors considered and the control measures. To keep this plan and the risk assessment current, businesses should monitor the news and websites such as Public Health England and GOV.uk website for up to date information and guidance from the Government on factors which may affect your risk management strategy and the steps you should take as part of the same.
COVID-19 can have a more detrimental effect on those who are in the high-risk group it has nothing to do with age. This group includes those with a weakened immune system, older people, and those with long term medical conditions such as asthma, cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease and lupus. You may not be aware that an employee or others working for you have a condition which puts them in this group, but you should take steps to gather this information. An email to those within the business asking anyone in this group to make their condition known to the human resources department or management would cover this. The email should say why this information is required and confirm any information provided will be subject to the same rules of confidentiality as all other personal data. This will allow you to consider what if any additional measures need to be put in place for those within this group.
Additional measures a business could consider to protect its workforce against the risk of contracting the virus are:
- Limiting non-essential business travel.
- Conducting meetings via the use of electronic meeting systems such as Microsoft Teams.
- If team members need to travel to meetings arranging hire cars for them to do so rather than them using public transport.
- Asking those within the business who are returning from holidays to make the business aware if they have travelled to any high-risk areas as advised on the GOV.UK website.
- If anyone has travelled to a high-risk area even if they are not exhibiting any symptoms considering whether they could work at home for a period of time before returning to work premises.
- Limiting visitors and contractors to your site. If this is not possible then asking those who need to attend site to fill in a form or questionnaire confirming they have not travelled to any high risk areas or to their knowledge have not been close contact with anyone who has undertaken such travel or who may be at risk of infection from the virus.
- Having a printed advice sheet for visitors and contractors summarising approach to the management of the risk and requesting the reader respects the business approach and following the recommended hygiene practices such as regular handwashing and the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach which is dealt with later in this article.
- If you are a customer facing business having a prepared response for staff to use when communicating with visitors.
- Cancelling attendance at all large-scale events.
- If you have a large-scale event planned in the near future either postponing this or putting in place measures to limit the potential spread of any viruses such as having attendants dispensing hand sanitiser to attendees prior to entry to the venue.
- If your workforce is office based particularly if the office is open plan, limiting the number of people in the office at any one time. It is known that one particular company has split its workforce into two groups and each group rotates between working in the office and home at different times.
- Advising the business of updates to the plan and government advice. For example, the government has just advised a seven-day stay at home period for those who have either a high temperature or a new continuous cough.
You may also wish to give consideration to enhanced cleaning programmes and implementing measures such as:
- The periodic cleaning of high contact areas such as door handles, toilet flush handles, handrails, doors, machinery operation posts, breakout and kitchen/ canteen areas during the day. Remember to consider whether a COSHH assessment is required for the use of certain chemicals.
- In hot desking environments providing anti-bacterial wipes which also kill viruses on each desk to allow those using the desk to wipe down the area before use.
- The provision of hand sanitiser at each point of entry to the work premises, breakout and kitchen and toilet areas.
- Arranging for a full clean of desk areas including telephones, docking stations, keyboards, and other desk equipment each night.
If an employee or other persons within the business notifies you they have COVID-19 you should make everyone in the business aware of the fact. You should also take steps to notify anyone else that the infected person has been in contact. You should not disclose the name of the employee or infected person. Nor should you disclose any further details relating to the onset of the illness. You will also need to arrange for a deep clean of all areas where that employee has or potentially could have been.
Everyone has a personal and moral responsibility not to infect others with an illness where they are aware of their potential to do the same.
In most workplaces if someone has a cold they will be advised not to come into the office and work from home where possible. If you have the flu, then it is unlikely you will be able to get out of bed in any event. Hence the advice to self-isolate if you develop any of the symptoms consistent with the onset of COVID-19.
A lot of the advice which is being issued regarding the steps which we should take to protect ourselves from COVID -19 are steps which us as individuals should be doing to keep ourselves healthy. There are many virus out there and many of them are transmitted in the same way as COVID-19 so the advice in this article and being put out by various agencies should be a part of our daily routines not just something that we follow whilst COVID-19 is in the spotlight; such steps are the tenements of basic good hygiene practices.
What must be borne in mind is germs can live on surfaces for several hours. This is not a cause for panic, but it should be taken into account when considering measures to counteract the spread of any virus not just COVID-19. Thus, in workplaces or when travelling on public transport or even in your car the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach should be used. This means catching coughs and sneezes in tissues not your hands, then throwing them away and washing your hands. If you don’t have a tissue or you do not have a free hand to retrieve a clean tissue from your bag or pocket, then coughing or sneezing into your sleeve is also helpful in reducing the spread of droplets. You should not re-use tissues these should be put into the bin as soon as possible and then your hands washed. If you do not have access to hand washing facilities, then the use of hand sanitiser gel is advised. If you do not have sanitiser gel which is quite possible as the current wave of panic buying has resulted in a shortage in stores, then wash your hands as soon as you get to your destination; this should be done as an additional precaution in any event.
The above advice is particularly important when you are in close contact with others as there is a higher risk of transmitting a virus in such circumstances. Public Health England defines close contact with a virus carrier as being within 2 metres of that person for 15 minutes. If you think about how long we all spend travelling on public transport, sitting next to our office colleagues, in meetings or near others in the workplace the need to follow this advice becomes all the more essential.
The most effective precautionary method is regular handwashing. This reduces the chances of contamination from the virus lingering on surfaces. By hand washing we do not mean a quick rinse under the tap and not using soap, handwashing should be carried out with soap and water and should last at least 20 seconds. There is guidance available on the NHS website on hand cleaning techniques but in short you should:
- Wet your hands with water.
- Apply enough soap to cover the surfaces of your hands including your wrists.
- You should rub the soap into every part of each hand and wrists.
- Rinse your hands with water.
- Turn the tap off with your elbow; and
- Dry thoroughly with a single use towel.
The government is continuously reviewing the situation and have published a plan and implemented legislation to deal with the growing threat.
 Taken from the ECDC website on 11 March 2020.