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A young colleague of mine’s flatmate recently returned from Italy and has been told to self-isolate because of coronavirus. My colleague says she’s showing no symptoms so she’s good to come to work. She says she doesn’t want to work from home because the flat is not a conducive spot to get work done, having him around the house is a distraction and if she’s only there in the evening she can stay away from him and reduce her chance of catching coronavirus (if he’s got it). Clearly I don’t want to get the coronavirus and I don’t want to give it to my family. So if she comes into the office am I within my rights to walk out and insist on working from home? Or can bosses force her to stay away even if that’ll make it harder for her to get her work done?
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This week, lawyer Alan Lewis answers a topical and tricky query about the Covid-19 coronavirus and where you stand if you think someone you work with might have it.
The latest Government guidance for employers and businesses on Covid-19 can be found here.
It is unclear from your email whether or not the flatmate of your colleague has been diagnosed as suffering from Covid-19. The relevant guidance provides that for contacts of a suspected case in the workplace, no restrictions or special control measures are required while laboratory test results for Covid-19 are awaited. In particular, there is no need to close the workplace or send other staff home. Most possible cases turn out to be negative. Therefore, until the outcome of test results is known, there is no action that an employer needs to take.
The situation is different, however, where a member of staff or the public with confirmed Covid-19 has recently been in the workplace. Whilst closure of the workplace is not recommended, your employers will be contacted by the local Health Protection Team to discuss the case and identify people who have been in contact with the person. A risk assessment will also be undertaken by the Health Protection Team.
I am assuming that your colleague’s flatmate has not been diagnosed with Covid-19 as otherwise they would have been contacted by the Health Protection Team. Furthermore, you do not refer in your email to your colleague’s flatmate actually having been diagnosed with the virus. The guidance specifically provides that contacts are not considered cases and if they are well they are very unlikely to have spread the infection to others. Furthermore, those who have had close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 will themselves be asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days and, again, I am assuming that your flatmate has not received this advice for themselves.
In all the circumstances, I do not believe you would have any legal right to absent yourself from the workplace or insist on working from home. That is not to say that, as a precautionary measure, your employers could not ask your colleague to work from home for a limited period of time in the circumstances. However, that would be a matter for your employers.
Whilst guidance on employer’s responses to Covid-19 is subject to change, I would suggest that you raise your genuine concerns with your employers. It may well be that they themselves are concerned about the facts that you have set out in your email and they decide to ask your colleague to work from home.
It is also important to note that ACAS guidance provides specific guidance in respect of employees who feel uncomfortable in going to work. The guidance states that an employer should listen to any concerns staff may have. If the concerns are genuine the employer must try to resolve them to protect the health and safety of their staff. For example, if possible, the employer could offer flexible working. If an employee still does not want to go in, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this. If an employee refuses to attend work, it could result in disciplinary action.
Alan Lewis is Principal Lawyer and Head of Employment at national law firm Linder Myers which has offices in Manchester, Shropshire, Chester and Lancashire. Alan has in excess of 24 years’ experience in employment law and acts for both senior employees and employers in a wide range of Employment Tribunal and High Court disputes