The Coronavirus: Guidance for Employers

The Coronavirus: Guidance for Employers

A new strain of coronavirus that had not been previously identified in humans, which is now officially known as 2019-nCoV was reported in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China, in December 2019.   A vaccine has not yet been developed for this strain of virus.  The coronavirus causes respiratory illness in humans, usually resulting in mild symptoms including runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. Some individuals experience more severe symptoms and it can lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties and, in rare cases, death. More susceptible individuals at greater risk of becoming seriously ill include older people, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Current government advice is that the overall risk to the public in the UK remains moderate (at the time or writing there are 9 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK). To put this into context in terms of overall level of risk, last year around 1,700 deaths in the UK were linked to flu.

General advice

Employers have a duty under health and safety legislation to take steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees, so far as reasonably practicable, including those who are particularly at risk for any reason. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of people they work with. They must cooperate with their employer to enable it to comply with its duties under health and safety legislation. Employees who refuse to cooperate, or who recklessly risk their own health or that of others in the workplace, could be disciplined where this is appropriate.

However, at this stage managing employees’ fears around contracting the virus is more likely to be an issue for employers than that of the consideration of the measures required to protect staff. 

There is no requirement at present to undertake a separate risk assessment in the workplace for the coronavirus and currently the control measures for prevention should be approached like every other viral disease in the workplace.  For those that have been in contact with suspected cases (as opposed to confirmed cases), no restrictions or special control measures are required while laboratory test results for coronavirus are awaited. For those that have been in contact with confirmed cases of coronavirus, the advice on self-isolation for a period of 14 days applies (employees may, for example, work from home during that period where practicable). 

Individuals in self-isolation should, where possible, avoid having visitors to their home, but it is fine for friends, family or delivery drivers to drop off deliveries etc.

Employers are advised to keep an eye on the current Government advice and to refer employees to it where they may be concerned about their individual risk. The advice is reviewed by the Government on a daily basis:

Travellers from China and other specified areas

This advice applies to travellers who have returned to the UK from the following areas:




Republic of Korea

Hong Kong





Individuals who have returned to the UK from any of these areas in the last 14 days and who have developed symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath (even where those symptoms are minor), should immediately:

  1. stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as you would with the flu (i.e. self-isolate)

  2. call NHS 111 to inform them of their recent travel to the country

In Scotland, individuals should phone their GP or NHS 24 on 111 out of hours. Individuals in Northern Ireland should call 0300 200 7885.

Employers should bear in mind that requesting staff who are symptomless but have recently returned from China not to attend work during the incubation period might be indirectly discriminatory, if this affects more staff of Chinese ethnicity than others. This would, however, most likely be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim provided a well employee is not required to stay away from work for longer than 14 days after their return.

Should employees be required to wear face masks to protect themselves from infection?

This is a question that we have been asked on the FSB health and safety advice line.  Medical guidance states that face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals but there is very little medical evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings. Face masks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly and disposed of safely in order to be effective.

The advice from the World Health Organisation states that if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with a suspected coronavirus infection.

General measures

Whilst the coronavirus is not at present a pandemic in the UK, it is advisable to adopt basic precautionary measures in the workplace.  Our factsheet on employment issues during a pandemic virus, which is available on the Hub, contains guidance on workplace health and safety measures.  In short, the best way to protect employees and others from infections like coronavirus is to encourage them to follow simple hygiene practices, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water or use a sanitiser gel where this is not available, as well as carrying tissues and using them to catch coughs and sneezes, and disposing of used tissues appropriately.  Employers should remind employees of any existing risk assessments for reducing the risk of infection in the workplace and should ensure that these are still relevant and sufficient. 

A Government campaign has been launched to provide advice on how to slow the spread of Coronavirus. The poster can be displayed in public areas and can be accessed at the following link:

Are you aware that FSB Essential members can book a call with a solicitor, tax or cyber expert through the FSB website? Log in and click on Legal Hub – then click on the Book a call and follow the steps. Here’s the link: