On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus disease, now renamed COVID-19, a "public health emergency of international concern". While there have been a limited number of cases reported in the Middle East to date, employers in the region are naturally keen to understand what steps, if any, to take in order to protect its workforce and business. This article addresses some of the key questions being asked by Middle East employers.

Employers who have been in the region for a while will be all too familiar with dealing with outbreaks of potentially fatal viruses, following the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2012 and as a result of which a number of lessons were learned.

The Middle East has already put in place a number of measures to limit the spread of the Coronavirus disease; for example, the Dubai Health Authority has confirmed that suspected cases of Coronavirus disease must be treated as an emergency case and insurers must not therefore refuse coverage and treatment must be provided free of charge where there is no insurance in place.

Immigration restrictions have also been implemented across the region; for example, holders of passports issued by China and Hong Kong are not currently allowed to enter Kuwait and foreign nationals who have been to China on or after 14 January 2020 are not allowed to enter Iraqi Kurdistan.

What is the Coronavirus disease?

According to the WHO:

  • Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
  • The current Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.
  • Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
  • As with other respiratory illnesses, the Coronavirus disease can cause mild symptoms including a runny nose, sore throat, cough, and fever. It can be more severe and can lead to pneumonia or breathing difficulties. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. Older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as, diabetes and heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

Should I be issuing formal communications to my employees regarding the Coronavirus disease?

While there is no legal obligation to issue a communication to employees regarding the Coronavirus disease, employers may wish to do so, particularly if employees are raising queries in this regard.

A balance does however need to be struck between seeking to inform and protect the workforce without creating undue panic.

From an employer's perspective, it is important that employees promptly report any suspected contact with someone with the Coronavirus disease so that precautionary measures can be taken.

Employees may be reluctant to make such reports if they believe it may have an impact on their work, pay, employment etc. Employers should therefore consider providing employees with some assurances in this regard.

Employees can be directed to consult the WHO website for up to date information regarding the Coronavirus disease, symptoms and preventative measures.

Employers should consider issuing travel guidelines to employees in relation to both work related and personal travel. Work related travel to infected areas should ideally be avoided; where such travel is necessary, protective measures should be put in place. While employers cannot prevent employees from personal travel to infected areas, it may be prudent to require advance notification to the employer so that precautionary measures can be taken.

Can I require an employee to remain away from the workplace if, for example, they may have come into contact with someone with the Coronavirus disease?

Local labour law and an employee's contractual terms should be consulted to check whether the employer has the right to require the employee to take annual leave on certain dates. If so, and assuming the employee has sufficient annual leave balance, this right could be availed.

Alternatively, employees could potentially be required to work from home. There are however strict immigration laws in the Middle East which, in some cases, only permit working from an employer's premises. Working from home also carries its own legal issues; for example, an injury suffered by an employee while working from home could potentially amount to a workplace injury in some jurisdictions.

What should I do if it is suspected / confirmed that one of my employees has the Coronavirus disease?

An immediate priority will be to contain the spread of the virus amongst the workforce. Prompt action will be critical and, with this in mind, we strongly encourage all employers to consider an emergency response procedure so that management have a clear action plan.

Critical aspects of the emergency response procedure will include promptly ascertaining who the employee may have come into contact with and, potentially, requiring such employees to remain away from the workplace (on leave or working from home) until it is confirmed that they have not contracted the virus.

Prompt communications, internally and potentially externally, may also be required and must be sensitively drafted with due regard to the balance between ensuring individuals are notified if they may have been exposed to the virus, while at the same time protecting the privacy and data of the employee involved and with due regard to local data protection legislation and/or laws protecting an individual's privacy.

The employee should of course be granted sick leave in accordance with local law requirements and their employment contract.

Steps should be taken to promptly as certain who else the employee may have come into contact with.

What if an employee's family member has the Coronavirus disease?

The statutory right to sick leave does not apply where an employee's relative is sick; an employee is not therefore statutorily entitled to take sick leave to care for a relative. Local legislation and internal company policies should be checked to confirm whether any other leave applies, such as emergency leave, for example.

Employers should, in any event, consider requiring employees to take time away from the workplace (working from home or mandatory leave) to prevent the spread of the virus (noting the potential legal issues in this regard highlighted elsewhere in this article).

What if an employee is unwilling to attend work for fear of infection?

There is no statutory right for an employee to take leave or remain absent from the workplace in these circumstances. In many jurisdictions, unauthorised absence without legitimate excuse would provide a basis for termination of employment.

Employers could however consider allowing employees to take annual leave or permitting employees to work from home (again, noting there may be local immigration restrictions on doing so).

Can I require an employee to attend a medical examination and/or review their medical records to check their current status?

Local legislation would need to be consulted. Some jurisdictions in the Middle East have dedicated data protection laws which would limit an employer's ability to access an employee's medical records without consent. Privacy is, in any event, a right which tends to be closely protected by legislation across the Middle East and it would generally be necessary to obtain an employee's express written consent before accessing their medical records.

Final comments

Ultimately, it is important that employers strike the correct balance between protecting its workforce and business while at the same time preventing undue panic.

The key takeaways from this article should be the importance of ensuring that:

  • employees promptly report to the employer any suspected contact with someone who has, or may have, the Coronavirus disease; and
  • management are sufficiently prepared to deal with such a report and, importantly, to minimise the spread of the virus (as well as the spread of undue panic).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.