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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, except during quarantine on return from overseas) and any enhanced provisions that the employer may decide to offer them. For further details, including on the operation of the 10 day self-isolation period and when self-isolation is a legal requirement, please refer to our Coronavirus FAQs, as well as the Government guidance on self-isolation for households with possible or confirmed Covid-19 infection, self-isolation for contacts of people with confirmed Covid-19 infection who do not live with the person, how the NHS app contact tracing feature works and quarantine self-isolation on arrival in England.

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. Alternatively, 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 (see below). Note, however, that if you decide to require an employee who may have been in contact with someone who has Covid-19 to self-isolate when they are not required to do so under the applicable Government guidance (see Step 1 flowchart above), you may have to keep them on full pay as they would be considered ready and willing to work – see question 6 of our ‘Health and safety measures’ FAQs for further details.  

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 assessment during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’ 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; and
  • 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

 As noted at Step 1, above, it is important for employers to ensure that employees who are required to self-isolate do not attend the workplace during their self-isolation period. It is an offence punishable by a fine for an employer to allow a worker who is required to self-isolate to attend the workplace if the employer is aware that the worker:

  • has tested positive for Covid-19; or
  • has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive and has received a notification to self-isolate from NHS Test and Trace.

The Government has provided detailed sector specific guidance setting out a baseline of health and safety measures that employers must take to help prevent workplace outbreaks of Covid-19, and it is worth noting that such measures continue to be required regardless of whether staff have already received the Covid-19 vaccination.  In addition, employers may wish to suggest to potential or suspected close contact cases that have not yet triggered self-isolation requirements (see above Step 1 flowchart) that they take certain precautionary steps. These include:

  • avoiding contact with people at high risk of severe illness from coronavirus, such as people with pre-existing medical conditions;
  • taking extra care in practising social distancing and good hygiene; and
  • 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 in the workplace. Ordinarily, this would require an express provision for testing in an employee’s contract of employment (or the contractual part of the employer’s 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. 

The Government is encouraging employers with at least 50 employees to implement workplace testing and is making available free lateral flow (LFD) tests to employers who register for the workplace testing scheme. For further details, see question 5 of our ‘Health and safety measures’ FAQs and the applicable Government guidance.

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 Covid-19 test results will 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 workplace testing for 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 may also have to share details of an outbreak at the workplace, externally, with NHS Test and Trace and/or Public Health England (PHE) in certain circumstances.

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. However, employers should avoid naming individuals if possible and should not provide more information than is necessary.

Informing appropriate authorities of cases of Covid-19 in the workplace

Guidance on NHS Test and Trace and the workplace advises employers to call the Self-Isolation Service Hub as soon as they are made aware that any of their workers has tested positive. The guidance states that employers will need to provide the NHS Test and Trace Account ID of the person who has tested positive, as well as the names of co-workers identified as close contacts. This will help ensure that all workplace contacts are registered with NHS Test and Trace and can be notified to self-isolate if necessary. 

If there are one or more confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the workplace, employers should follow the advice given on sector specific ‘action cards’, which will help them to recognise and report incidents and be aware of measures that local health protection teams may advise to help contain a potential outbreak. For example, the advice set out in the action card for factories, plants and warehouses indicates that an employer may wish to contact its local PHE health protection team if it:
  • has taken the initial steps outlined on the action card but is still seeing more cases of Covid-19 at the workplace;
  • is thinking it might need to close because of the number of people affected and has not had public health support; or
  • has had a worker admitted to hospital and is getting significant interest from local media. 

The employer’s Covid-19 health and safety risk assessment should make provision for an 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.


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