Coronavirus Q&A

As the virus spreads and continues to dominate the news, we have all your work-based coronavirus questions answered

As the coronavirus has spread and dominated the news, UNISON has received an increasing number of enquiries on what employers – and members – should do to minimise the risk of infection at this worrying time.

The issues and risks will vary depending on the sector you are working in, so UNISON has been proactive in negotiating jointly agreed advice in a number of sectors.

General advice on what coronavirus (COVID-19) is, how it is spread, and basic hygiene to minimise the spread of the disease is available from this Gov.UK guidance.

Basic hygiene includes:

  • Washing your hands regularly, particularly after using the toilet, before eating and using public transport
  • Keeping surfaces clean
  • Avoiding unnecessary touching of eyes, nose and mouth particularly with unwashed hands
  • Blowing your nose with disposable tissues and disposing of them in secure bins
  • Avoiding unnecessarily close contact (under two metres) with those who may be infected.

What should workers do if they believe they may have the symptoms of, or have had close contact with someone who has had, COVID-19?

In either circumstance workers should be encouraged to self-isolate, and stay away from work. They should normally call NHS 111 for advice, except in an emergency, when they should ring 999.

Until a case is confirmed current advice is that the employer need not apply special restrictions or special control measures, and neither is there a need to close the workplace. The most up-to-date advice is available via the Gov.UK COVID-19 list of guidance.

Can my employer make me self-isolate?

Yes, your employer can instruct you not to attend your workplace.

If I have to self-isolate will I be paid?

The secretary of state for health, Matt Hancock, has sent guidance to employers telling them staff who have been asked to self-isolate are entitled to take the time as sick leave.

Although this would be good practice, and has already been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff, this in itself does not guarantee that staff will get sick leave as a matter of course. Where there is uncertainty, branches should seek urgent discussions with their employer to ensure that staff are paid in full if they are asked to self-isolate.

The government has also responded positively to UNISON demands that Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) be paid from the first day of sickness, rather than the fourth, as is the case normally. This change will stay in place as long as the situation regarding coronavirus persists.

However, it remains the case that those on zero-hours contracts have no entitlement to SSP, unless they can demonstrate they earn at least £118 per week from their employer. Since many work for multiple employers, it is difficult to prove this.

UNISON is therefore urging the government to take further immediate measures to ensure that no-one will “take a financial hit for doing the right thing”. Branches should seek assurances from employers that this is case.

Where staff are being paid under contractual sick pay, it is good practice to ensure that such absence is not counted towards any sickness absence policy triggers. This has been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff (ie those covered by National Joint Council Terms & Conditions. If your members are covered by local terms, please check with your local branch).

What should my employer do if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed – either member of staff or member of the public – in their workplaces?

They will be contacted by their local PHE Health Protection Team to discuss the case, identify people who have been in contact with them, and advise on any actions or precautions that should be taken.

What should I do if I am asked to deep clean a building that has had a confirmed case of COVID-19?

Your employer must carry out a full risk assessment that identifies all the specialist training and the personal protective equipment (PPE:  masks, gloves, etc) that you may require. It is important that any PPE is made to fit the intended wearer.

Advice to staff who are cleaning in healthcare settings is available from the NHS Staff Council. Advice on cleaning non-healthcare settings, such as educational settings, can be found on from Public Health England. See also UNISON general advice on managing hazardous substances.

What should UNISON branches do if cleaning or other services are contracted out to private companies?

Branches should ensure that contracted out staff receive the same protections and rights, as far as possible, as those employed directly. This may involve initiating discussions with the main employer as well as with the contractor to ensure a joined-up approach is taken for the benefit of both service users and staff.

Where can I find advice on caring for people who are suspected of, or who have, COVID-19?

Advice is available from the Gov UK site. NHS staff are encouraged to refer to NHS Staff Council advice.

Councils should be reminded that they still have a responsibility – even where care services have been contracted out.