While the Coronavirus still poses a low risk in Ireland, we must assess the steps businesses can take to try to minimise the effects.
The HSE provides recommendations to prevent infection spread. These include:
Wash hands properly and regularly
- After coughing or sneezing
- after toilet use
- before eating
- if in contact with a sick person, especially those with respiratory symptoms
The HSE and World Health Organisation have stated that there is no evidence that masks can protect you against contracting the virus, it can only prevent the transmission of it to other people.
Health and safety
If an employee feels unwell and displays symptoms of the virus (cough, high temperature, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing), they should be referred to their GP / HSE. If they are certified unfit for work, they should be treated as per their company absence procedure.
Whilst a business has the duty of care to employees to take reasonable steps to ensure their health and safety and to protect employees against reasonably foreseeable risks, there is no legal obligation to enforce a precautionary suspension of employees returning from holiday or work in an affected region. However, if the HSE and or GP does not certify the employee unfit for work and the employer is still concerned, you may consider briefly suspending them on precautionary grounds. This should be on full pay unless the contract gives the right to suspend without pay.
The company could also instruct the employee to attend the company doctor if their contract allows them of that right. If there is a contractual right and the employee refuses to agree, then the refusal may be treated as a disciplinary matter.
The risk of contracting the coronavirus in Ireland is still low and this should be communicated to all employees to reduce panic and fear.
Communication is important to ensure employees know what is happening, when will it happen, for how long will it last, etc. There should be a point of contact in each business to streamline the queries. An all-staff briefing should be held to explain the situation in a simplistic and accurate manner. Encourage employees to participate in the planning for protection against the virus, they can bring forward ideas of more hygienic practices or business continuity plans which will also bring reassurance to them as there is the sense of involvement and control.
An employer must consider the risks and consider whether the employee is a vulnerable employee. The employer should be reasonable in situations such as “my child’s school has closed due to possible outbreak”, “my ill grandmother lives with me and is high risk”, or “I am in self-isolation”. However, where there is no risk for the employee, the employer can request them to attend work. An employee who continues to be absent from work in these circumstances may be subject to disciplinary action for unauthorised absence.
Companies should not require an employee travel to countries that have been affected by the virus, nor should they encourage non-essential travel to other countries for either work or holiday purposes. Practical alternatives to travel include postponing a trip and holding meetings via Skype or video conference where possible is advised. Due to the uncertainty, employees may cancel their holiday plans at short notice which may result in requests to postpone holiday dates that have already been agreed by the employer. These requests to postpone should be granted where possible, to support their precautionary decision.
Can an employer stop their employee’s from going on holidays? There should only be a travel ban on affected areas (e.g. northern Italy, China). Employers must ensure employees have adequate up to date information to form their own opinion and conduct their own risk assessment (what are the issues, what is the level of risk, what controls are in place).
If you have a query involving the coronavirus and your business and would like further advice, please contact Emma at SFA on 01 605 1668 or at email@example.com or visit our HR and Employment Law advice section.