Latest figures report at least 39 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in the UK. The risk of death to most working age people remains very low, but responsible employers should be taking steps to ensure they are prepared for the potential widespread transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the UK over the coming weeks and months. Employers should bear in mind that they have a statutory duty of care for the health and safety of their workers and to ensure a safe place to work.

In the workplace, this means providing sufficient clean places for employees to wash their hands regularly with water and soap and encouraging them to do so, as well as providing hand sanitiser and tissues for staff. Face masks will not be helpful in most workplaces outside the health sector but some employers may wish to consider providing them for those working in exposed situations or close proximity to very vulnerable people.

HR policies will also have a key role to play in slowing the spread of the virus and helping organisations cope with the fallout. Employers may want to review their remote working policies and explore ways that they could allow a much larger proportion of their workforce than usual to work from home, potentially for a period of several months. Business travel and meetings may also be curtailed by quarantines and closure of some public transport routes; in any case reducing the amount of travel and number of meetings will help to delay the spread of any outbreak and reduce the chance of infecting your workforce. Where possible, organisations should look to use Skype or other digital collaboration tools to replace physical meetings and reduce the need for business travel.

For employees who do fall ill, HR policies may need reviewing to allow workers to self-certify for extended periods of illness. It can take several weeks to recover from COVID-19 and workers who are ill at home with relatively mild symptoms will be encouraged to self-isolate and therefore may be unable to obtain a doctor's certificate for their employer.

Although in some cases employers might not yet be legally required to pay sick pay to workers who are either self-isolating or who are forcibly quarantined by the authorities, it is nevertheless strongly encouraged that all employers treat any kind of quarantine or self-isolation according to medical advice either as if it was sick leave, continuing to pay workers accordingly, or exploring opportunities for remote working where possible. If employees are not sick but are told by their employer not to come into work, for example on return from Northern Italy or another affected area, they should also continue to be paid as usual. A failure to pay workers simply because they are not yet showing symptoms will only encourage potentially infectious workers to come into the workplace where they risk spreading the virus among colleagues and customers, leading to much worse business outcomes further down the line. The government also has statutory powers to require sick pay to be paid to quarantined workers by law, something they are reportedly considering.

All line managers and HR functions need to be properly briefed on the organisation's policies in this area, as well as trained to spot symptoms of the coronavirus and what to do if someone who has recently been in contact with an infected person or who has travelled to a high risk area becomes unwell at work. Official guidance suggests workers in these cases should get at least two metres away from other people, preferably isolate themselves behind a closed door, avoid touching communal workplace surfaces or objects and call NHS 111 for advice or 999 in an emergency.

More generally, it is vital that employers keep their workforces closely informed and updated of any plans being taken either to reduce the risk of infection or mitigate business impacts. Business operations for some organisations, particularly those with key supply chains in badly affected countries or in sectors related to travel, may be severely affected by the global disruption. The UK government's official planning document envisages that up to a fifth of all UK workers could be absent from work at the peak of the virus and that disruption could last for several months.

Organisations should have contingency planning in place to deal with any disruption either from lost business or from staff shortages, and should discuss these plans openly with the workforce to keep them informed and avoid rumourmongering or disengagement. Such plans might include allowing people to take additional paid or unpaid leave, a shorter working week or other flexible resourcing arrangements. Ideally such plans should be drawn up in consultation with the workforce and the business reasons for any such decisions should be clearly communicated to workers.

Overall a clear sense of leadership and open, honest communications are the best ways for organisational leaders to combat any sense of panic or fear that risks setting in should the situation worsen. It is particularly vital at these times that there is a strong sense of trust between the workforce and senior leaders in order for important communications and advice to be believed and heeded.

For further advice, see the following article from People Management: Coronavirus: how should HR approach self-isolation? Employers should review the following official guidance pages for regular updates:

Acas - Coronavirus: advice for employers and employees

UK Government - Coronavirus: latest information and advice

UK Government - Coronavirus (COVID-19): UK government response

UK Government - Foreign travel advice

National Health Service - Coronavirus (COVID-19)

World Health Organization - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak