Coronavirus: a guide for small businesses and employers

Coronavirus: a guide for small businesses and employers

In December 2019, a new strain of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China. Here is our simple guide to help small businesses and employers navigate the impact.

What is Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

In December 2019, a new strain of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China. The virus causes: 

  • Respiratory illness
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

At greatest risk are those with pre-existing medical conditions (including diabetes and respiratory conditions) and the elderly.

The UK government’s current advice is that the risk to the public is moderate, and the overall risk to employees based in the UK in contracting COVID-19 from their place of work is very low.

However, employers should be aware of their duties and action they can take to minimise the impact of Coronavirus on their employees and their business.

What are my duties as an employer?

Under health and safety legislation, employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Similarly, employees have a duty to ensure they take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and those that they work with.

Employees who do not cooperate with employers in order to meet their health and safety obligations could, in theory, be disciplined – however, the biggest challenge employers are likely to face is managing employees’ concerns of catching the virus, rather than whether they would comply with protection measures.

What can I do to reduce the chance of employees catching Coronavirus?

There are a number of steps employees can take to minimise the chances of catching Coronavirus:

  • Avoiding close contact with suspected or confirmed cases
  • Avoiding touching their mouth, nose and eyes
  • Using a tissue only once and disposing of it straight away
  • Washing hands thoroughly and regularly, using hot water and soap
  • Using hand sanitiser in between washes

How should I handle employees returning from high risk areas?

Coronavirus has spread quickly throughout Europe and beyond.

The government has categorised countries into category 1 (high risk) and category 2 (lower risk), and advise the following:

  •  Employees returning from category 1 areas in the last 14 days should self-isolate for 14 days from the date of their return, regardless of whether they show any symptoms of Coronavirus
  • Employees returning from category 2 areas in the last 14 days and show symptoms should self-isolate for 14 days

You can find a list of category 1 and category 2 countries on

As they will be unable to work, they will be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.

What are the rules regarding Statutory Sick Pay and Coronavirus?

The government has recently relaxed its rules on Statutory Sick Pay, changing the minimum qualifying criteria to the first day of sickness (where it was previously the fourth day).

An employee is classed as being unable to work due to sickness if they are a carrier of Coronavirus, or if they have been in contact with a confirmed case.

The government has stated that if NHS 111 or a doctor advises an employee or worker to self-isolate, they should receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them. If the employer offers contractual sick pay, it’s good practice to pay this.

The employee must tell their employer as soon as possible if they cannot work. They should tell their employer the reason and how long they're likely to be off for.

The employer might need to be flexible if they require evidence from the employee or worker. For example, someone might not be able to provide a sick note ('fit note') if they've been told to self-isolate for 14 days.

Should I provide hand sanitiser to employees?

UK government advice is to wash hands thoroughly with hot water and soap for the duration of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. However, if you choose to provide hand sanitiser to your staff in an office environment, it should be a minimum 60% alcohol content to maximise chances of the virus being killed.

The Government has launched a campaign to provide advice on slowing the spread of Coronavirus, which includes a poster you can display in your workplace.

Should I provide face masks to employees?

Office based employees are not recommended to wear face masks to protect against the virus; Public Health advice to protect against infection is to avoid close contact with suspected or confirmed cases of Coronavirus.

The World Health Organisation’s advice states that if an individual is healthy, they only need to wear a face mask if they are taking care of someone with a suspected or confirmed case of Coronavirus.

Should I carry out a risk assessment?

Employers are not under obligation to carry out a risk assessment for the coronavirus outbreak, however may wish to do so in order to feel prepared.

Employees that have been in contact with suspected cases (rather than confirmed cases) do not need to self-isolate or take leave whilst test results are pending.

However, employees that have been in contact with confirmed cases should self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days. Employees can continue to work (for example, through remote working applications) during this period. The same guidance applies for employees who have recently returned from territories or areas that have outbreaks of Coronavirus.

The government’s advice on Coronavirus is a good resource to point concerned employees to.

Do I still have to pay staff if I instruct employees not to attend work?

If you choose to instruct staff not to attend work due to Coronavirus, you will still have to pay them their normal salary. This is because the absence is at your request and is not due to illness.

Many employers are directing staff to work from home via remote login (rather than simply state they must not attend work); this ensures disruption to business is minimised as employees can continue with their work in as normal fashion as possible.

What should I do if an employee refuses to come into work?

If an employee refuses to come into work, and has not:

  • Shown any symptoms of Coronavirus
  • Been in contact with any suspected or confirmed cases of Cornavirus
  • Has not been to any category 1 or 2 countries

The best way to handle such instances is reassure them that the advice from Public Health bodies states the chances of catching Coronavirus in a workplace is low.

Employers should exercise discretion with employees who may be at greater risk should they be exposed to Coronavirus (namely those with respiratory conditions, diabetes and the elderly) as they may be more anxious about catching the virus than lower risk individuals.

For more information, read our COVID-19 help and guidance articles.

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