In recent times there has been widespread publicity about the outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, which has spread from the Hubei province in China and has since been identified in other countries, including Australia.

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” 

The Australian Government has announced temporary measures to manage the risk of the virus spreading in Australia. These temporary measures include:

  • Australia will deny entry to anyone who has left or transited mainland China as of 1 February 2020 (with the exception of Australian citizens or permanent residents and their immediate family members, as well as airline and maritime crews that have taken appropriate measures);
  • All travellers arriving from any part of mainland China will be subject to enhanced border control measures and will be required to self-isolate for 14 days from the time they left mainland China; and
  • The travel advice for China has been updated to “Level 4 – Do not travel”. 

Whilst the risk of infection in Australia remains relatively low and there are still only a limited number of cases of the coronavirus in Australia, employers should consider what their obligations are to their employees and how they can manage the risk of exposure in their workplace.

For employees who have travelled to mainland China in recent times, or have family who have travelled in China, it is important that they remain mindful of their health condition in the weeks following their return to Australia and take an extra cautious approach. This might involve self-isolation for at least 14 days, as required by the Australian Government.

If an employee starts experiencing symptoms that might indicate the presence of the virus or an illness generally, the employee should be advised to see a doctor immediately and obtain full clearance before returning to the workplace. This should include confirmation that the employee is no longer contagious.

Employers should review any arrangements for travel to and from China for work. In light of the Government’s travel advice, travel to mainland China should not be undertaken unless absolutely necessary.

If there is a serious risk of exposure or the status of the coronavirus in Australia worsens, then employers may consider imposing their own quarantine period to manage the risk of exposure to other employees before allowing travelling employees (regardless of their travel destinations) to return to work and interact with the rest of the workplace.

The priority for employers should be to ensure the health and safety of the workplace and to minimise any risks of illness to their employees. However, this should be balanced with a reasonable approach to management of this outbreak. Employer’s should regularly check for updates from reliable resources (such the websites of the Departments of Health and Home Affairs) to monitor the situation and its potential impacts on the workplace. 

Employees should be provided with accurate information about the coronavirus and reminded that they also have obligations to take proper care of themselves and their work colleagues. This can be done by sending a communication to employees about this new risk and reminding employees of the employer’s position on managing illness in the workplace.

Shane Koelmeyer is a leading workplace relations lawyer and Director at Workplace Law. Workplace Law is a specialist law firm providing employers with legal advice, training and representation in all aspects of workplace relations, employment-related matters and WH&S.

02 9256 7500 | sydney@workplacelaw.com.au

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog.

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