Introduction

COVID-19 is classed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. As the risk of infection from the virus continues to be present, it’s posing a significant challenge to many organisations.

This factsheet provides an overview of the current coronavirus situation. It explains what the virus is and gives advice on how employers should respond to the threat and support employees by being prepared, particularly looking after employees’ health and safety and developing flexible resourcing plans.

We're updating this factsheet regularly to ensure it reflects Government advice as this evolves.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS-CoV and SARS (Cov). The official name for this new disease, not previously seen in humans, is COVID-19. On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) categorised it as a ‘pandemic’ which, in WHO terms, is ‘the worldwide spread of a disease’.

COVID-19 spreads where there is close contact between people. If someone with the virus coughs or exhales and is close to someone else, the other person could catch it by breathing in droplets of infected fluid. People can also catch it by touching contaminated surfaces or objects. Most people infected with the virus have mild symptoms and recover, but some experience more serious illness and may need hospital care. People over 40 seem to be more vulnerable, as are those with weakened immune systems or an underlying health condition such as diabetes, cancer and lung disease.

The incubation period of COVID-19 is between 2 and 14 days. Common signs of infection include a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a change or loss of sense of smell.

On 12 March, the Government announced that the UK was moving from the ‘contain’ into the ‘delay’ stage of the outbreak; the risk to the public was raised from moderate to high by the UK Chief Medical Officers. The UK entered lockdown on 23 March.

Following the UK peak of the pandemic in April and May, there’s been a steady decrease in new cases in all four nations and the risk status was changed to level 3 on 19 June: the virus is still in general circulation, and localised outbreaks are likely.

As infection from the virus continues to pose a risk in the UK, all employers and workers are being affected in some way. People’s health and wellbeing, and stringent measures to prevent the virus from spreading, should still be at the heart of every employer’s response.

We’ll continue to signpost latest developments, collate and publish updated resources, more detailed guidance and FAQs on our Responding to the coronavirus hub.

  • Keep up to date with Government and public health advice: This is a very fast-moving issue. Employers should keep up to date daily with the situation as it develops, and refer employees who are concerned about infection, using official and expert medical sources such as GOV.UK, the National Health Service and NHS 111 online coronavirus service. Government information is being updated regularly.

  • Use the basic but effective hygiene protection measures to help prevent the infection’s spread, including:

    • Make sure your workplace is clean and hygienic.
    • Promote regular and thorough hand-washing by everyone.
    • Provide all employees with an alcohol-based hand rub.
    • Encourage people to use and bin tissues.
    • Implement social distancing measures.

    On 7 April, the Government issued sector guidance with tailored advice on how employers should implement social distancing measures for different workplace scenarios.

  • The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised British nationals against all but essential international travel since the pandemic outbreak, but on 4 July it introduced exemptions for travelling to certain destinations that no longer pose a high risk for British travellers. On 11 June the Government published guidance for England setting out how people travelling to the UK must self-isolate for 14 days; this was updated on 6 July - from 10 July people will not need to self-isolate if they are travelling from an exempt country. There's separate advice for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • The Government and NHS advice is that anyone with certain symptoms (such as a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a change or loss of sense of smell) must self-isolate at home for seven days from when the symptoms started. You should also self-isolate if you’re waiting for a coronavirus test result or have tested positive for the virus, or if you live with someone with symptoms who has tested positive or is waiting for their test result. There is separate NHS Test and Trace advice (see below) if someone has been in contact with a person who has coronavirus.

  • The Government has expanded its COVID-19 testing framework. The guidance covers who is eligible, how to get tested and the different types of tests. It offers an employer portal for employers to refer essential workers who are self-isolating because they, or members of their household, have symptoms. There’s also an online self-referral portal for those eligible to apply for a test themselves.

    On 28 May, a new NHS test and trace system launched in England: anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms can be tested, and if they test positive their recent contacts can be traced. Anyone who tests positive must self-isolate. Anyone notified that they’ve had close recent contact with someone who has tested positive, must self-isolate if advised to do so by the test and trace service. In such circumstances, employees will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay. See the Government guidance for workers’ who are self-isolating.

  • As part of its strategy to enforce social distancing, on 20 March the Government announced that all pubs, restaurants and other entertainment/hospitality premises would close and that people should only travel if absolutely necessary. On 23 March, the Prime Minister instructed people to ’stay at home‘ to stop the disease spreading between households.

    On 10 May, the Prime Minister changed this advice to ‘stay alert’. He also announced the ‘first careful steps to modify lockdown measures, including that ‘anyone who can’t work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work’. The devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have issued different guidance. On 23 June, the Prime Minister announced further measures to ease the lockdown in England from 4 July. This includes allowing a ‘one metre plus’ social distance where it’s not possible to stay two metres apart. Pubs, restaurants and hairdressers can open from 4 July.

  • On 11 May, the UK Government published its COVID-19 recovery strategy, Our plan to rebuild, as well as new ‘COVID-19 secure’ guidelines for UK employers to help them encourage a safe return to the workplace. People’s health and safety should be paramount and physical distancing still applies, as our Returning to the workplace guide makes clear. We've worked in partnership with organisations including the Society of Occupational Medicine, Acas, Business in the Community and Mind to produce a toolkit to guide organisations through taking a holistic approach to managing a safe return to a workplace. Guidance from the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors advises on creating safe working practices during COVID-19.

  • We're urging businesses to ensure they can meet three key tests before bringing their people back to work:

    • Is it essential? If people can continue to work from home, they must continue to do that for the foreseeable future. If they cannot work from home, is their work deemed essential or could the business continue to use the Government’s Job Retention Scheme for longer, giving the time needed to put safety measures and clear employee guidance and consultation in place?

    • Is it safe? Employers have a duty of care to identify and manage risks to ensure that the workplace is sufficiently safe to return to. Employers should take their time with gradual returns to work to test health and safety measures in practice and ensure they can work with larger numbers before encouraging more of their workforce back.

    • Is it mutually agreed? It’s vital that there’s a clear dialogue between employers and their people so concerns such as commuting by public transport can be raised, and individuals’ needs and worries taken into account. There needs to be flexibility on both sides to accommodate different working times or schedules to manage these issues.

  • The Government has announced a package of measures to support businesses and workers during the pandemic:

    • A Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme whereby all UK employers will be able to access a financial subsidy worth 80% of their workers’ wage costs up to a cap of £2,500 per worker per month. Affected employees need to be classed as ‘furloughed workers’ to be eligible for the scheme. On 26 March the Government published guidance for employers and employees on how the scheme operates, eligibility and how to make a claim – there’s an online portal for submitting claims. On 12 May the Government announced an extension of the furlough scheme to the end of October 2020. The ‘flexible furlough’ arrangements to the scheme announced on 29 May will bring furloughed employees back part-time in July, and a new ’taper’ requiring employers to contribute to furloughed salaries from August. On 9 June the Government announced that parents returning to work from maternity and paternity leave will be eligible for the scheme even after 10 June cut-off date. On 12 June HMRC updated guidance for claimants including that the three-week minimum three-week period for furlough is removed from 1 July.

    • On 8 July in his Summer Economic Update, the Chancellor announced a Plan for Jobs to spur the UK’s recovery, including a ‘Job Retention Bonus’ - a one-off bonus of £1,000 for each furloughed employee who is still employed as of 31 January 2021. Further, businesses will be given £2,000 for each new apprentice they hire under the age of 25.

    • Small business grants, business rate holidays for some sectors and other targeted grants and loan facilities. A dedicated webpage has more detail on the Government’s business support measures and how to apply and there’s further advice for businesses and employees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

    • A Self-Employed Income Support Scheme comprising a direct cash grant worth up to 80% of profits up to £2,500 per month.

Employees’ health, safety and wellbeing during this pandemic should continue to be paramount. Employers have a statutory duty of care for people’s health and safety, and to provide a safe place to work, but there’s also a strong moral responsibility to ensure that employees feel safe and secure in their employment. Employers need to be proactive to protect their people and minimise the risk of the virus spreading. The Government has instructed people not to avoid using public transport when travelling to work and from 15 June people travelling on public transport in England are required to wear face coverings. Employers’ duty of care for the health and safety of their employees includes anyone who is working remotely.

Many people will be concerned about the risk of infection and will need reassurance. Communicate clearly to employees that they need to take basic hygiene precautions, such as effective hand-washing, and avoid all non-essential travel and social contact to help reduce the spread of the virus. Follow official public health and medical advice closely and advise them on what to do if they think they may have caught the virus, or are at risk of contracting it. If you’ve shifted your workforce to home working, make sure you keep in touch with people and look out for their wellbeing as it can be an isolating experience. Encourage managers to have one-to-ones with people and set up virtual team meetings.

Self-isolation, shielding, and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

Many people need to self-isolate, or ‘shield’ if they are extremely clinically vulnerable, based on official guidance.

The Government announced a range of new measures around SSP. If employee or worker needs to self-isolate or shield, they are entitled to SSP. This includes individuals who have been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111, those who have COVID-19, or who have the symptoms, or if someone in their household has symptoms. It also applies to people caring for those in the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate.

The Government has made Statutory Sick Pay available from day one (instead of from day four) for those affected by coronavirus when self-isolating or shielding. Employers with fewer than 250 employees can claim a refund for COVID-19 related SSP costs (up to two weeks per employee). On 19 May the Government announced a new online portal for SMEs to claim the rebate.

On 22 June, the Government announced that shielding will be paused from 1 August and that shielding employees should follow strict social distancing guidelines instead. They can return to work if they cannot work from home, providing their workplace is a ‘Covid-secure environment’. SSP will no longer be paid for these employees. If it’s not possible to work from home, it’s essential that employers work with any affected employees to discuss a safe return to the workplace and agree any adjustments.

Medical evidence for SSP

Employees can currently self-certify for the first seven days. Government advice is that employers should use discretion around the need for medical evidence beyond that for absence where an employee has to self-isolate or shield in the current exceptional circumstances. The Government has introduced a temporary alternative to the fit note for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak whereby those in self-isolation can obtain a notification via NHS 111 to use as evidence for absence from work. Employers can check if an isolation note is valid using an online service.

An alternative option to providing sick pay is to allow people who are asked to self-isolate, but are not unwell, to work from home wherever possible, and continue to pay as normal.

School closures and reopening

Following the Government’s announcement of school closures from 20 March, employers should expect some disruption to a person’s ability to work as normal, depending on their child’s age. However schools and childcare providers have continued to provide care for a limited number of children including children who are vulnerable, and children whose parents are essential workers. Parents whose work is critical to the COVID-19 are outlined in the Department for Education guidance.

On 24 May, the Government announced that more schools and nurseries across England would open from 1 June. In June the Government updated its guidance for parents and carers for opening schools for more early years and primary school pupils from 1 June, and for secondary schools from 15 June. In Scotland, schools are scheduled to start reopening at the start of the new school year in August. In Wales schools reopened for more pupils from 29 June, and in Northern Ireland, some pupils will return late August with a phased return for the remainder.  The Department of Education in Northern Ireland published guidance to support safe working in educational settings on 4 June.

Decisions about encouraging employees to return to the workplace need to factor in the ability of working parents to access childcare. Hopefully, many working parents can continue to work from home. Employers should consider flexible approaches to how people can carry out their role, for example reducing or changing their hours of work in consultation with the individual. Alternatively, some may choose to take this time off as holiday, so normal processes and pay apply there. If an employee is unable to work from home, hopefully many employers will continue to pay their salary as normal. Alternatively, this could be granted as emergency time off or unpaid parental leave

  • Reassure employees if they have concerns, and keep them well informed about your organisation’s policies and contingency plans, particularly in relation to the specific guidelines for employees who have been in contact with an infected person or have symptoms of the virus.

  • Make sure everyone, including managers, understands which sick pay and leave policies apply and how these will be implemented. Actively communicate this advice with your people, customers and suppliers.

  • Implement an internal communication strategy so that employees are aware of measures being taken to manage the situation in your organisation. Understand that some people may have real concerns about catching the virus, while others may have worries about family or friends in a higher-risk group. It’s important to strike the balance between your organisation and its people being prepared for the significant spread of the virus whilst reassuring people that there is no need to panic. Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency and return-to-work plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees. They also need to know and where to signpost people to for further advice or support, including employee assistance programmes and/or counselling if they are anxious.

  • Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and wellbeing generally, including those through an employee assistance programme. If large numbers of people are now working from home where this is possible, provide ongoing support and communications. Some could start to feel socially isolated and/or anxious about the situation. Make sure you listen to any concerns, and that they take care of their mental wellbeing. Mental health charity Mind has published guidance on coronavirus and wellbeing. Supporting employees’ mental wellbeing will also be important as lockdown ends and people return to the workplace. We’ve worked with the Society of Occupational Medicine and the Royal College of Psychiatrists to produce a Sustaining work-related mental health post-COVID-19 toolkit.

  • The risk of infection from the virus remains as real as it ever was, so be prepared to increase the level of support you provide to staff and adjust your resourcing plans accordingly. Keep in mind anyone who may be more vulnerable due to a pre-existing health condition, or disability, ethnicity, age, or pregnancy, and be aware of the additional duties you have as an employer to these specific groups of employees.

  • Government guidance states that businesses and workplaces should make every possible effort to enable working from home as a first option. Where working from home is not possible, workplaces should make every effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government.

  • As part of your contingency plan, introduce more flexible resourcing strategies to maintain essential services or production in case of staffing shortages due to people becoming ill and/or self-isolating. If roles can’t be performed at home and are essential, consider more innovative resourcing solutions that may need to be deployed, such as split shifts to cover essential operations or services.

  • Carry out a resourcing risk assessment of the organisation, identifying essential areas of the business where few employees have the required skills. Consider training additional employees in these skills, particularly if you have furloughed some employees. Ensure that procedures are developed to ensure smooth handovers for employees who are filling in for colleagues in unfamiliar roles. It may be necessary to provide additional training and a risk assessment if individuals are moving to roles where there may be a healthy and safety risk.

  • Develop plans to enable your organisation to operate on a skeleton staff if necessary. Identify key services and roles that are essential and can’t be put on hold, as well as projects or roles that could be temporarily stood down. Identify those individuals and managers who have transferrable skills, who can fulfil more than one function and could be allocated to more essential roles.

  • Maximise the use of technology to facilitate remote contact, for example, video conferencing to facilitate remote meetings. For customer-facing organisations, consider introducing or maximising the use of self-service options and online services. Issue staff with laptops and IT support so they can work remotely wherever possible. Support their health and safety, for example by carrying out risk assessments using self-completion questionnaires that can be completed remotely.

  • Increased sickness absence may create a need for other employees, if willing, to work longer hours to keep your business going. If this happens, you will need to comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998 to ensure appropriate length of daytime working hours, night shifts and rest breaks. The Government has changed the rules on carrying over annual leave to support key industries during COVID-19 so workers who haven't taken all their statutory annual leave will be able to carry it over into the next two leave years.

  • If your operations are severely affected, consider introducing a voluntary special leave policy on a temporary basis whereby individuals can opt to take paid or unpaid leave. Be mindful that there could be some employees who are willing to take additional time off and welcome a break, but others may struggle financially if they lose pay. Consider offering a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements, and communicate the business reasons to employees.

Contacts

UK Government – Coronavirus: latest information and advice

UK Government - COVID-19: guidance for employers and businesses

UK Government – Coronavirus business support

National Health Service - Coronavirus (COVID-19) 

Acas – Coronavirus advice for employers and employees

World Health Organization - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak

Books and reports

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE. (2020) Coronavirus action plan. London: DHSC.

DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS, ENERGY & INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY. (2020) Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19). London: BEIS.

Journal articles

BASKA, M. (2020) Coronavirus: HR and facilities teams must work together to keep workplaces hygienic. People Management (online). 6 March.

CHURCHILL, F. (2020) Staff anxiety the biggest coronavirus challenge for businesses, survey findsPeople Management (online). 20 March.

CHURCHILL, F. (2020) UK faces ‘major employment crisis’ as vacancies see record drop. People Management (online). 16 June

CHURCHILL, F. (2020) What do the government’s new reopening guidelines mean for employers?People Management (online). 24 June.

HOWLETT, E. (2020) What can HR learn from Europe’s staggered return to work?People Management (online). 20 April.

LETCHFIELD, H. (2020) How to help working parents avoid burnout during lockdown. People Management (online). 22 April.

PALMER, S. (2020) What are the government's new rules for reopening workplaces – and will they work? People Management (online). 4 May.

Explore more on the People Management coronavirus hub.

This factsheet was last updated by Rachel Suff.

Rachel Suff

Rachel Suff: Senior Employee Relations Adviser

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a senior policy adviser in 2014 to help shape the public policy debate to champion better work and working lives. Rachel is a policy and research professional with over 20 years’ experience in the employment and HR arena. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on health and wellbeing and employment relations. She has recently led a range of policy and research studies about health and well-being at work, and represents the CIPD on key advisory groups, such as the Royal Foundation’s Heads Together Workplace Wellbeing programme. Rachel is a qualified HR practitioner and researcher with a master’s in Human Resource Management from Portsmouth University and a post-graduate diploma in social research methods from Sussex University; her prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas. 

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