As the coronavirus (Covid-19) situation gathers momentum, organisations nationwide are assessing how their operations will be affected.

What is your duty towards employees and the people your organisation serves? What are the insurance implications? Should you cancel formal meetings and events?

We’ve rounded up the key issues you need to consider.

Coronavirus in the workplace: how should you respond?

Coronavirus presents a range of challenges for employers. All organisations have a duty to take steps that are reasonably necessary to ensure the welfare, health and safety of employees. But what does this duty cover? What action should you take if an employee is unwell, unable to return from abroad, or is refusing to come into work? We cover these questions and more in our latest Employment blog – click here.

Coronavirus and contracts: how should you approach matters?

Contractual obligations impact all aspects of business life. In the face of a global issue like the widespread outbreak of coronavirus, your organisation will need to consider implications for your contracts. 

How can you reduce operational risks?

Things to think about include the termination of events – for example, at arts and other entertainment venues – liability for breach of contract, issues around performance and the enforcement of obligations, how to bring contracts to an end in an orderly fashion, as well as more technical issues such as frustration and force majeure. Your organisation may also need to consider reputational issues and risks arising from possible insolvency. Should you have any such concerns relating to your organisation, it is best practice to seek early legal advice so that steps can be taken to protect your position and minimise impact and disruption. Please contact Rob Oakley or Leticia Jennings for further assistance.

Insurance: are you covered?

The government’s declaration on 4 March 2020 that coronavirus is a “notifiable disease” was welcomed by many organisations. This is a formal classification required by many insurance policies. It means that if your day-to-day business is interrupted, you are denied access to your premises or experience losses caused by the coronavirus outbreak, you may be covered.

However, you need to be aware of:

  • Risks: is it covered? Even though standard commercial insurance policies usually cover a wide range of risks, they are unlikely to cover specialised or unlikely risks, such as the effects of coronavirus. Akin to this is that some policies will exclude coronavirus as it is now a “pre-existing circumstance”;
  • Exclusion: is coronavirus excluded? Even if your policy does include notifiable disease as a risk, check to see that it does not fall into any of the exclusions (for example, a mutant variation of atypical pneumonia or SARS) and that you are still covered; and
  • Extension to cover – can we buy an extension? Consequential business interruption cover for notifiable diseases may still be available. However, the premium is likely to be expensive.

The situation is changing on a daily basis. We’d recommend that organisations review their policy documents or speak to their brokers in order to be aware of the risks and the options available. This should go hand-in-hand with planning your business continuity strategy. For further advice, Charlie Miller can help.

Planning formal meetings

If you have an upcoming formal meeting, such as an AGM, make sure you plan ahead for reduced attendance or the need to move locations and times for the meeting. Companies should check their constitutions for rules on remote participation (such as by phone or video link) and quorum, and consider encouraging members to vote by proxy, in case they are unable to attend in person on the day. If possible, you may want to delay sending formal notice of the meeting until the situation becomes clearer. Once formal notice is sent, it won’t be possible to cancel the meeting.

You should also consider the cancellation terms of any venue booking and the relevant government guidance for holding large meetings.

Landlord obligations, building management and coronavirus

Landlords must create a safe environment. But what happens if your landlord overreacts and clears the building, unreasonably disrupting business?

Your landlord would still have to keep the building open for the tenants. Closing it would mean they are not meeting their obligation to provide your property to you. However, if the government legislated that all office buildings be closed, then that would be a different matter.

If there is a requirement in your lease that tenants must comply with reasonable regulations, then your landlord could create new regulations governing the common parts and management of the building. However, it’s debatable whether landlords could put into effect a new requirement stating that occupiers work from home to prevent transmission of the disease.

If buildings are kept open, then landlords have certain statutory duties to ensure that the property is safe. If the tenants cannot get to their premises safely due to the common parts not being cleaned properly or properly maintained in light of the virus, then the landlord could be open to claims by the tenants. Contact Mark Traynor if you have further queries.

Immigration and visa considerations

Have you thought about the location of your current or incoming talent, and how the outbreak may affect their immigration status?

The Home Office has published new immigration guidance for those affected by travel restrictions to and from China. Whilst the guidance itself currently only applies to China, individuals applying for permission to enter the UK in other affected countries may also be impacted by the closure of visa application centres due to local outbreaks. We examine the key questions organisations need to consider here.

Preparing in the public sector

If you are a public authority (or a private entity carrying out public functions), you’ll need to review your obligations under existing regulations and/or statute and assess whether you are able to comply. 

Government guidance on coronavirus is being updated regularly. To make sure you’re acting appropriately, keep abreast of the guidance and take action on any new regulations affecting your organisation. In particular, if you are subject to mandatory functions or duties, make sure you have appropriate contingency plans in place to ensure these can still be fulfilled in the event of disruption or staff shortages.

In particular, health bodies, social care providers and educational institutions must plan for all possible scenarios. We would advise you to have ongoing risk assessment processes in place. Particular attention should be given to high risk groups and safeguarding responsibilities, including any vulnerable individuals who may have pre-existing medical conditions. Should you have any concerns on any of this and need legal support please contact Melanie Carter or Tessa Furnivall

Watch out for fraud

The City of London police has issued a fraud alert warning, highlighting a number of coronavirus-related scams. Since February 2020, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) has identified 21 reports of fraud where coronavirus was mentioned, with victim losses totalling over £800k. Ten of these reports were made by victims that attempted to purchase protective face masks from fraudulent sellers. Other scams have included coronavirus-themed phishing emails.

Reporting numbers are expected to rise as the virus continues to spread across the world. If you have concerns about fraud and need legal advice, speak to Mindy Jhittay.

Future developments

This is a rapidly-moving situation, with updates and fresh guidance expected almost daily. Keep an eye on our coronavirus insights for the latest.