With the World Health Organization declaring Coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, the UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public of this disease from low to moderate.
For businesses who engage in activities on an international scope, their staff now face a rapidly evolving risk. The highly uncertain nature of coronavirus means employers must adapt fast to any changes in cases or countries, ensuring they remain consistent with health and safety laws to ensure they keep employees out of harm.
As it stands, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are advising against all travel to the Hubei Province and against all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China. This excludes, at the time of publication Hong Kong, Macao, and also Northern Italy. This means technically, lorry drivers are still able to drive to Northern Italy as part of their role.
As such, whilst employers may be reluctant to cancel important business engagements, given the government’s recommendations, employers should take suitable steps to ensure that employees are not required to travel to these specifically restricted areas unless such travel is essential. Employees who have been requested to visit restricted areas should feel comfortable raising this alarm with their employer, potentially suggesting postponing the trip.
Northern Italy is not currently a restricted area, but employees may still feel uncomfortable visiting the area, bearing in mind the number of rising cases. Employees should take care to check guidance from the Department of Health to assess their health conditions and predicted vulnerability to contracting coronavirus. Those with weakened immune systems, older workers or those with long-term conditions may be more susceptible to falling ill with coronavirus and may put forward a strong case for avoiding Northern Italy.
Employers hold a duty to prevent their employees from the risks of infection. If there is reason to believe Northern Italy is a high risk location, employees should feel comfortable voicing their concerns with their employer. Employers should offer flexible working arrangements where possible, or the ability to request time off as holiday or unpaid leave. Employees can refuse to attend work, but this may entitle their employer to take disciplinary action. We recommend lorry drivers to continue to assess the changing recommendations and to feel comfortable voicing their concern with their employer if they feel at risk.
Written by Lisa Townsend, Consultant Solicitor of Employment Law at Richard Nelson LLP