According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the recent outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus originating out of Wuhan, China, comes from a family of viruses that includes the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
The virus spreads easily from person to person via respiratory droplets or droplets of saliva. The symptoms include, fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing and pneumonia.
There are currently 362 confirmed deaths (all except one in China) and over 17,300 cases worldwide. As of 30 January 2020, the virus had spread to 27 countries. China has quarantined 18 million people by placing three of its cities, Wuhan, Huanggang, and Ezhou in lock down.
There are currently no confirmed cases of the Novel Coronavirus in New Zealand. However, the Ministry of Health has confirmed that a small number of people are being tested.
Businesses in New Zealand are already grappling with Coronavirus implications, particularly those with employees located overseas or who have employees in close contact with those who have travelled from overseas.
Useful steps employers could take at this time include:
- Provide information to employees from the Ministry of Health’s website. Try not to embellish this with information obtained from other sources of media, as this may not be accurate. Employers could distribute information which outlines ways of reducing the risk of spreading the virus and consider introducing additional hygiene measures, such as providing hand sanitisers.
- Travel policies (particularly around international travel) should be considered very regularly taking advice from official sources. If employees have recently travelled to China, ask them to stay at home (on special paid leave or working from home if that is possible) for a period of time until you have sought medical advice about whether it is safe for them to return to work.
- Reduce exposure to members of the public who may have travelled to China recently. This will be particularly difficult for those working in the hospitality sector or at Port Authorities. Consider asking international visitors to your workplace to disclose if they have travelled via China within the last 14 days and seek advice how to best minimise risk of infection from those visitors.
- Encourage employees to take sick leave if they are feeling unwell. In the short term, using their normal sick leave entitlement, but perhaps consider implementing an emergency policy that increases sick leave entitlement during the pandemic, should that become necessary.
- Review employment agreements for clauses that deal with such a situation, such as an “Interruption of Employment” clause and consider what action you might take if unable to provide work to employees due to the risk of infection becoming too dangerous to continue operations. Should this become likely, consult with staff in good faith to discuss how the time off will be treated and act in accordance with the terms of their employment agreements, if they do have applicable clauses. Bear in mind that the employees have a right under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 to refuse work if they consider their workplace to be unsafe.
- Monitor and have protocols in place regarding communication about risk and if/when there is a confirmed case in New Zealand as employee concerns will escalate at this point. Make sure there is a clear point of contact for the employees during that period and going forward.
- Avoid discriminatory action which may arise by treating anyone (employee or customer) differently (directly or indirectly) due to their nationality or religion. Ensure employees are aware that any such behaviour will not be tolerated.
At this point employers must try to find a balance between taking balanced precautionary measures and being prepared for further developments.
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