COVID-19 continues to spread across the world with increasing case numbers in a growing number of countries on several continents. As at 9 March 2020 there had been 109,577 confirmed cases and
3,809 deaths, with 25 per cent of cases and 18 per cent of deaths outside of mainland China. Importantly, COVID-19 has now spread to cover 104 countries.
The case numbers of Coronavirus continue to grow in Australia, and we recorded our first death due to Coronavirus on 1 March 2020. Although there have been a limited number of confirmed cases of this strain of Coronavirus in Australia to date. It is important to be aware of the symptoms and how you can support employees impacted in the workplace.
What is the Coronavirus?
Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by a new virus. Symptoms range from a mild cough to pneumonia. Some people recover easily, others may get very sick very quickly. There is evidence that it spreads from person to person. Good hygiene can prevent infection. Affected people may experience:
- flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and headaches, and
- difficulty breathing.
Can staff go to work?
Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate family (including spouses, dependants and legal guardians) are still able to enter Australia but will be required to isolate themselves for 14 days after the date they left China, Iran or the Republic of Korea, however they can not go to work until 14 days after leaving the high risk country.
If a worker as in close contact with a confirmed case of Coronavirus in the last 14 days they must isolate themselves for 14 days after the date of last contact with the confirmed case.
Employees who are in isolation due to one of the above situations should alert their employer. Depending on the type of work, and provided the employee is well, they may want to discuss alternative arrangements such as working from home. See the ‘Isolation guidance’ information sheets at www.health.gov.au
What should I tell my staff?
Employers should provide information and brief all employees and contract staff, including domestic and cleaning staff where applicable, on relevant information and procedures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
You should inform staff who meet the above criteria that they should remain isolated in their home.
Employees should advise their employer if they develop symptoms during the isolation period, particularly if they have been in the workplace. Public health authorities may contact employers in the event an employee is confirmed to have Coronavirus.
Payment and leave
The health and safety of employees and those they come into contact with must be an employer’s top priority. This should guide the approach any employer takes to responding to notification from employees that they may have come into contact with Coronavirus.
If an employee informs you they may have contracted the Coronavirus, or have been exposed to someone who has the Coronavirus, they may use the following accrued entitlements:
- Personal/carer’s (sick) leave: This leave is available for use where an employee is not fit for work. Employers can ask for a medical certificate certifying an employee’s absence from work due to illness or injury if required by the employer.
- Employees will be unfit for work in circumstances where they should be isolated from others in accordance with the Australian government advice outlined above.
- Annual leave/long service leave: This can be used by employees who do not have enough personal/carer’s leave, where they have accrued the relevant entitlement. Employees requesting to take this form of leave should be permitted to do so, unless refusing to grant the leave is reasonable in the circumstances.
- Directing employees not to attend work: If you have a reasonable suspicion an employee may be exhibiting signs of Coronavirus then you may direct an employee to leave work or not attend the workplace and attend a medical professional for assessment.
- However, in this event, the employer should pay for the employee to see the doctor as well as for their time away from the workplace if the employee does not agree to take paid leave. The employer will be responsible for paying the employee until such time as medical confirmation is obtained that the employee is unfit for work. Once an employee is certified as unfit, then the employee can be required to take a form of leave (whether paid or unpaid).
Returning to work
If an employee does report to you that they have, or believe they have, been exposed to the Coronavirus, we strongly recommend that, before permitting the employee to return to work, you obtain a medical certificate from that employee certifying they do not have the Coronavirus and they are fit to return to work.
How can we help prevent the spread of coronavirus?
Practising good hand hygiene and sneeze/cough hygiene is the best defence against most viruses:
- wash hands frequently with soap and water, before and after eating, and after going to the toilet
- cover coughs and sneezes, dispose of tissues, and use alcohol-based hand sanitiser
- and if unwell, avoid contact with others (touching, kissing, hugging, and other intimate contact).
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) therefore recommends:
As of 8th March 2020, the AHPPC advises that the risk to the general Australian population from COVID-19 is low, with the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Australia in returned travellers.
At this time the AHPPC consider that public events should proceed, but strongly recommend that people that are unwell with cough or fever or other respiratory symptoms should not attend public events or gatherings. This is particularly so for people who have recently travelled from overseas.
People who have been a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19, or who returned from or transited through a listed higher risk country (www.health.gov.au/covid19-countries), must not attend public gatherings until 14 days after leaving the country or having contact with a confirmed case even if they are completely symptom free. Those undergoing COVID-19 testing also must not attend public gatherings until they have received their results.
It is difficult to predict how the outbreak will evolve in Australia and the situation may change rapidly. When significant community transmission is occurring, social distancing measures such as cancellation of public gatherings will be considered. Australia does not have evidence of significant transmission currently, therefore cancellation of public gatherings – at this time – would not be proportionate nor particularly effective.
The AHPPC is closely monitoring the situation and further advice regarding public events will be provided when necessary.
While Coronavirus is of concern, it is important to remember that most people displaying symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat or tiredness are likely suffering with a cold or other respiratory illness—not Coronavirus.
For the latest advice, information and resources, go to www.health.gov.au
Call the National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you require translating or interpreting services, call 131 450.
The phone number of your state or territory public health agency is available at www.health.gov.au/state-territory-contacts
If you have concerns about your or an employee’s health, speak to a doctor.
Claire Harrison is the Founder and Managing Director of Harrisons, a flourishing HR consulting business that sprouted in 2009 from Claire’s passionate belief that inspiring leaders and superstar employees are the key success factor to any business. With over 20 years’ experience, Claire has worked as a HR Director of multi-national organisations, as a Non-Executive Board Director, and a small business owner. Claire’s corporate career includes working with companies such as BHP, Westpac, Fonterra and Mayne Nickless.