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Having a clear strategy on how to deal with workers who discover that they are infected with coronavirus (COVID-19), or suspect that they might be, is now essential to line mangers and HR. In this quick guide, we provide a summary of 5 ‘first response’ steps to ensure that when COVID-19 rears its head, in a single or multiple outbreak, your workplace is ready and prepared.

1. Identify who must self-isolate immediately

Use the flowchart below to determine which workers are required to self-isolate immediately. As soon as any of the self-isolation requirements are satisfied these workers must not attend the workplace. The employer should continue to support these workers during self-isolation in accordance with Government guidance (e.g. payment of Statutory Sick Pay during the period of self-isolation) and any enhanced provisions that the employer may decide to offer them. For further details please refer to our Coronavirus FAQs

2. Identify potential or ‘suspected’ cases

There is a ‘grey’ area in relation to potential or suspected cases of COVID-19 where employees are not immediately required to self-isolate but there is still cause for concern and a wide spectrum of potential risk in relation to a COVID-19 outbreak at work. 

For example, an employee may have been working in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus. Although the employee may not have triggered any requirement to self-isolate yet (see flowchart above for details) they could still present a high risk of onward transmission if they have become infected with COVID-19. In contrast, an employee may be worried because they have been on a bus with somebody who was coughing and appeared to be unwell - possibly due to COVID-19. 

When suspected or potential cases become apparent, the appropriate level of the employer’s response will depend on the degree of risk that is presented by the particular case in question. This can be determined through a health and safety risk assessment.

3. Assess the risk

Employers are required to take reasonable steps to protect their workers and others from COVID-19 by carrying out a health and safety risk assessment. Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on risk assessments and Working safely during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak states that employers must:
  • identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
  • think about who could be at risk
  • decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
  • act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk

Detailed guidance on what should be included in a COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment has been produced by HSE and is available here.

4. Take appropriate action

In addition to the baseline of health and safety measures that employers must take to prevent workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 (see 5 steps for working safely, along with sector-specific guidance), Government guidance on NHS Test and Trace service in the workplace highlights further steps to be taken by potential or suspected close contact cases that have not yet triggered self-isolation requirements (see above Step 2 flowchart). These include:

  • avoiding contact with people at high increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus, such as people with pre-existing medical conditions
  • taking extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene
  • watching out for symptoms and self-isolating if they also show signs of coronavirus

Mandatory testing

As an extra precaution, some employers may be considering the introduction of mandatory testing for COVID-19 or testing for symptoms, such as a temperature check before entry to work. Ordinarily, this would require an express provision for testing in an employee’s contract of employment (or sickness absence policy). However, given the extreme circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, mandatory testing could be deemed reasonable in the circumstances to protect employees’ health and safety. 

Data protection compliance

When considering the introduction of mandatory testing measures, the employer must ensure that it is compliant with the relevant data protection rules, particularly as some of the data surrounding COVID-19 is likely to be ‘special category’ health data, requiring higher levels of compliance. It is advisable to carry out a data protection impact assessment for compliance purposes and update any data protection policy documents and privacy notices. Specific guidance produced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK data protection regulator, in relation to data protection compliance and COVID-19 can be found here.

5. Manage internal and external communications

A common concern when faced with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 is how much information should be shared internally with other co-workers. Employers will also have to share details of an outbreak, externally, with Public Health England (PHE) if there is more than one case of COVID-19 associated with the workplace.

Sharing details of potential or confirmed COVID-19 cases with staff

ICO guidance has made it clear employers should keep staff informed about potential or confirmed COVID-19 cases amongst their colleagues. Data protection does not prevent an employer from carrying out its duty to ensure the health and safety of its workers. The ICO also highlights the risk to the wider public which may be caused if employers fail to share information. However, employers should avoid naming individuals if possible and should not provide more information than is necessary.

NHS Test and Trace workplace guidance also explains that individuals who order a COVID-19 test are advised to consider asking their employer to alert co-workers that they have had close contact with in the 48 hours before symptom onset. If employers do receive a request to alert co-workers they should act promptly.

Informing Public Health England (PHE) of multiple COVID-19 cases

If there is more than one case of COVID-19 associated with the workplace, the employer must contact its local PHE health protection team to report the suspected outbreak. The employer’s COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment should make provision for a multiple case outbreak and, where possible, nominate a single point of contact to take the lead on contacting local PHE teams. If PHE officially declares an outbreak, the employer will be asked to record details of symptomatic staff and assist with identifying contacts. Keep all employee records up to date (e.g. contact details, shift patterns, attendance, etc.) to assist with any internal tracing of workers’ movements in relation to individual(s) who have tested positive for COVID-19. At this point, the PHE team will step in and advise further on outbreak management.

How we can help

Our experienced Legal, HR and Health & Safety teams are here for you. For more than 120 years Make UK has helped tens of thousands of organisations survive the best and worst of times. We provide clear direction, enabling you to take fast action and make knowledgeable choices.

If you are a Make UK member and you would like further details of managing a COVID-19 outbreak in the workplace or if you need more general support in relation to Covid-19 please contact your adviser. If you are not a Make UK member, please call 0808 168 5874 or email us [email protected]. The FAQs on our website are also updated regularly and provide detailed guidance on issues relating to Covid-19.


News / Coronavirus / HR & Legal / HSCE