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While the full medical impact of coronavirus is still uncertain and may turn out to be little or no worse than some other forms of flu, the commercial toll has already been huge.

Retailers will have varied concerns, from maintaining footfall from wary shoppers to potential supply chain problems. They may also face employment issues, and will certainly have questions about how to handle staff who have concerns of their own about the virus.

As is so often the case, clear communication with employees is key but individual cases are likely to vary, so NFRN members should seek advice if they have a specific employee situation that they need to manage, using the NFRN Legal Service helpline.

If an employee is actually unwell, then normal workplace rules concerning sickness absence will apply. The outbreak of coronavirus does not create new legal rights or obligations. Employers will be obliged to pay Statutory Sick Pay where it applies or whatever may be specified in an employee’s contract.

However, ACAS has advised that employers may need to be flexible where their sickness absence policy requires a “fit note” from a doctor, as this may take longer than usual, if the employee has been asked to self-isolate.

If an employee is not too unwell to work, but has been told to isolate themselves by a medical professional or has been quarantined abroad, for example, there may be no legal requirement to pay them when they are unable to work, though it would obviously be good practice to do so if they are prevented from working through no fault of their own.

If, on the other hand, the employer has asked a member of staff not to come into work, then they should continue to pay them. A trickier question arises if employees do not want to come to work for fear of catching the virus from a colleague or customer. Again, this could vary hugely from case to case.

If a colleague or even a customer has actually been diagnosed as suffering from coronavirus, then the business will probably receive specific advice and may have to quarantine staff and potentially close. But staff may be reluctant for other reasons, if they or a family member might be particularly vulnerable to respiratory illness, for example, or if there have already been positive diagnoses in that geographic area.

All employers obviously have legal responsibilities for the health and safety of staff, so it makes sense to listen to any concerns and consider them accordingly. Even if there is no significant risk in the employee coming to work, the employer may allow them to take holiday or unpaid leave, but ACAS says there is no obligation to do so.

Coronavirus is likely to be with us for some time yet, so businesses may find it worthwhile to keep staff informed and aware of their rights and responsibilities.

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