With cases of 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) now confirmed in the UK, it’s crucial that employers and employees are aware of the correct steps to take in identifying the virus and stemming its outbreak.
Novel (meaning ‘new’) coronavirus disease or COVID-19 is one of a family of viruses that cause disease in animals.
Several coronaviruses have ‘jumped’ to humans, notably SARS and MERS, which have caused more than 1,500 deaths since 2002. Most coronaviruses, however, are less severe and cause common cold and flu-like symptoms, including:
- Difficulty breathing
- A high temperature
- A cough and/or sore throat
With these symptoms typical during the UK’s annual flu season, it’s important to know who may be exhibiting the signs of coronavirus as opposed to a seasonal cold or flu.
It’s also worth noting that of the confirmed cases so far, some people have shown few to no symptoms.
Hubei Province in China, where the 2019 coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan city
Who is at risk?
There are two main groups of people at risk of contracting coronavirus:
- People who have visited Wuhan city or Hubei Province, China within the last 14 days (the period within which symptoms can develop)
- People who have been in contact with anyone who has recently visited these areas
Those affected could now be in more than 20 countries worldwide where coronavirus has been confirmed besides the UK, including France, Germany, Italy, Australia and the United States.
A number of countries are considered at greater risk, due to higher volumes of inbound air travel from mainland China. These include:
- Republic of Korea
- Hong Kong
With the number of confirmed UK cases of coronavirus growing, the UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public to 'moderate'. However, the risk to individuals is still considered to be low.
If you believe you or one of your employees is affected:
- Contact NHS 111 immediately
- In Scotland, phone your GP or NHS 24 on 111 out of hours
- In Northern Ireland, call 0300 200 7885
What is FirstCare doing to help?
When employees contact FirstCare, reporting cough, cold and flu symptoms, our nurses are asking the following questions in addition to our standard telephone triage protocol:
- Details of travel abroad within the past 3 months – particularly in the Far East
- Exposure to people who have visited China or other high risk areas (see list above) within the past month
If we, or the employee believe their symptoms are related to coronavirus, we are advising them to:
- Call NHS 111 (in Scotland, call their GP or NHS 24 on 111 out of hours. In Northern Ireland, call 0300 200 7885), who are set up to do the appropriate triage and advise on exactly what to do next.
- DO NOT attend a GP surgery, A&E unit or hospital without first calling the phone number/s listed above to make precautions.
- Advise the employee to call their line manager to seek advice and support from their local occupational health provider.
- Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as they would with other flu viruses.
- Avoid using public transport and taxis
Keep devices clean and wash hands regularly to help prevent the spread of viruses
What can employers do to stop the spread of viruses?
We’d advise employers to take and encourage the following precautions within workplaces, which will help to prevent the spread of any virus transmitted by droplets from coughs and sneezes:
- Encourage hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating.
- Provide employees with hand sanitiser to carry, making frequent hand washing easy.
- Advise employees to avoid touching things then touching their face, especially in public transport systems including airports.
- Provide disposable tissues to cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Provide covered bins so employees can carefully dispose of used tissues (catch it, bin it, kill it).
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick or where viruses are circulating – this includes greetings such as shaking hands or kissing someone on the cheek.
- Similarly, avoid close contact with others if you are sick.
- Provide disinfectant wipes to regularly clean commonly used surfaces and devices such as computer keyboards, tablets and mobile phones are touched and handled regularly.
- Discourage communal sharing of snacks from bowls and packets that have been touched by others.
At the time of writing, there is no vaccine for coronavirus.
External visitors to UK workplaces
Businesses should consider implementing screening measures to check on external visitors' (such as contractors) recent travel history to minimise the risk to workers at UK premises.
Deliveries from China
Employees who handle deliveries from China may be concerned at a heightened risk of contracting coronavirus.
Studies of SARS and MERS found that both viruses had low survivability on surfaces, making the risk of spread from packages shipped over days or weeks, at ambient temperatures, very low.
Recent analysis however, has concluded that coronavirus can "persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days" at room temperature. Low temperature and high air humidity further increase their lifespan.
So far, there is no evidence that COVID-19 has been transmitted via international package delivery, but with much still unknown about the new strain, it is worth monitoring the CDC's coronavirus FAQ webpage.
What is the government doing to help?
Details on the government’s preparations for coronavirus, response to confirmed cases, and efforts to contact travellers who may have been affected can be found on its Coronavirus: latest information and advice webpage, updated daily.
Up-to-date advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on travel to and from China can be found on their Foreign travel advice: China webpage.
At the time of writing, there are no other international travel restrictions in place. However, given the rapidly changing status of the outbreak, it is advisable to check:
- the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s search page for all international travel advice and
- the status of your business’s travel insurance (NB: travel that does not conform with the government's official guidance may invalidate travel insurance)
for all workers planning to travel to or return from work abroad.
Travellers should also be advised on the steps above on how to avoid contracting and spreading the virus.