Since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China back in November 2019, the novel COVID-19 coronavirus has spread rapidly around the globe. The high infection and mortality rate has forced governments and business to take unprecedented measures, such as social distancing, to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.

The situation is particularly acute for employers, who may be caught between opposing obligations to keep their employees and customers safe while maintaining their income streams as economies across the world grind to halt amid strict social distancing measures. This blog aims to cut through the confusion and help business owners – both large and small – understand what their obligations are during these challenging times, in line with the latest government advice.

Social distancing

Since the COVID-19 virus spreads rapidly (according to estimates, each infected person can spread the virus to 2-3 new people, in comparison to the common flu, where the transmission ratio is roughly 1:1), governments around the world have asked their citizens to practice social distancing.

While the exact requirements vary from country to country, the goal everywhere is to limit the spread of the virus by limiting large gatherings of people, ensuring that outside of their homes, people stay approximately 2-metres apart (so the virus cannot spread via droplets from coughs and sneezes), and quarantining anyone who has contracted the virus (or is a suspected carrier) in order to ensure that they do not infect others.

For business owners, these requirements translate into their day-to-day operations as follows:

  • Homeworking – where possible, the government has asked businesses’ employees to work from home. While this measure is intended to allow businesses to maintain operations (allowing them to fulfil customer orders and contracts, as well as continue to pay their staff), it may require some planning on the part of businesses. They will need to ensure that employees can still communicate with each other and clients, and have access to the necessary equipment and training to allow them to complete their daily tasks. In addition, with indefinite closure of schools, and limited childcare options, employers need to recognise that many employees may need to juggle work and childcare responsibilities. As a result, businesses may need to allow greater flexibility in terms of working hours and task-sharing than they are normally accustomed to.
  • Social distancing – where the nature of the business is such that employees cannot work from home, employers need to ensure that social distancing measures are implemented that limit close contact between workers, and between workers and customers. Such measures may include changing staff rotas and working hours to allow more space between workers in offices, putting up protective barriers in high traffic areas (for example, at supermarket checkouts and cafeterias) and putting visible markers on the floor to remind people to keep at least 2-metres apart in waiting rooms, supermarket queues, factory floors and other similarly populous environments.
  • Hygiene and cleaning – businesses will need to implement stricter and more frequent cleaning regimes for high-touch surfaces (such as desks, tables, telephones, keyboards, etc.) between each shift to ensure that the risk of transmission is minimised. In addition, managers should encourage staff to follow personal hygiene routines, such as frequent handwashing or sanitising and ensuring that coughs and sneezes are covered by a tissue which is then disposed of. In order to encourage such behaviour, businesses should make disposable tissues and hand sanitisers available, where possible.

Business suspension and relief

While it is not an appetising notion, some businesses may need to consider temporarily suspending their operations and laying off or furloughing their staff. While many business owners have come up with clever workarounds to keep their businesses afloat such as implementing kerbside pickups of goods or moving their services online with the help of videoconferencing software, such avenues are not available to all businesses, or owners may find that the cost of implementing a multitude of rapid changes to their operations is not cost-effective.

In recognition of the fact that most businesses will suffer a drop in revenue while countries attempt to bring the outbreak under control, governments around the world have promised aid packages and lines of credit for businesses, in addition to more generous social security for laid-off workers. For example, those employees who follow self-isolating advice to stay at home if they are symptomatic will be eligible for statutory sick pay from the first day of their absence from work. Since some of the details of these measures are still being refined, business owners should check the www.gov.uk website for updates on a regular basis.

Check out our recent blog where we look at how to keep your customers informed about your business during this global pandemic.