Coronavirus: what members need to know

GMB members briefing: Coronavirus

This briefing is intended to give GMB members updated information on controlling the risk of the Coronavirus.

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What is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a common family of viruses, and one of the main causes of the common cold. When a person is infected with the virus, they develop symptoms similar to a cold – primarily respiratory symptoms relating to breathing.

Why this outbreak matters is because it is a new strain of the coronavirus, known as 2019-nCOV (Novel Coronavirus), which has never been seen before.

As a result, there is no human immunity to the virus, and no medication available to treat the symptoms. As a viral infection, antibiotics will not affect the virus.

This new strain of the virus causes severe respiratory diseases, including pneumonia.

Where did the Coronavirus come from?

In late December 2019, the new Coronavirus strain was identified in China.

The initial outbreak was identified as originating from a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

The virus spread rapidly within Wuhan and Hubei Province, and subsequently cases have been identified in other countries as people travelled overseas from Wuhan.

How serious is this outbreak?

This is not the first time that a Coronavirus outbreak has occurred. Lessons have been learned from the 2002/3 SARS outbreak, which resulted in 774 deaths worldwide, and quarantine procedures have been quickly implemented to reduce the infection risk.

Much like SARS and influenza, those most at risk are young people, older people and those with existing health conditions.

At time of writing (end of January 2020), 213 people had died in China, from approximately 10,000 identified cases. Those who have died appeared to have had pre-existing health conditions.

Only 2 cases have been confirmed in the UK so far. The SARS outbreak by comparison saw 4 UK cases with no fatalities occurring. It is not clear yet how strong this Coronavirus outbreak will be, but strong control measures are in place.

The situation is changing every day, and guidance from the UK Government and the World Health Organisation is being updated regularly. GMB members should refer to the guidance produced by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England (DHSC and PHE), found on www.gov.uk

What should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Control of Substances Hazardous Health 2002 (COSHH) to reduce the risks from exposure to biological hazards to as low as is reasonably practicable (as low as they can with the resources they control).

Under COSHH, employers must identify who may be harmed by a biological agent, and how they may be exposed.

In performing and updating the COSHH assessment, employers will need to regularly consult the latest guidance from Public Health England (PHE), Health Protection Scotland (HPS) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The assessment should include the identification of potential cases of Coronavirus; isolation procedures and policies; and control measures such as negative pressure ventilation and the provision and safe use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

For most employers, this will be little more than ensuring that any worker who has travelled to China in the past month does not come into work until after the 14 day incubation period has passed. Normal policies and procedures regarding flu cases should apply.

A clear policy on handwashing with hot water and soap must be in place. This includes the provision of hot water if this is not normally available on site.

In the education sector, this quarantine approach should be extended to any pupils and staff who have recently travelled to China.

For members working in healthcare and airports, there may be a need to wear Personal Protective Equipment if potential exposure is deemed to be a risk. This will primarily be FFP3 facemasks, but gloves may also be required.

Public Health England have provided guidance on the provision of PPE where isolated patients are being treated. These are:

  • Long-sleeved fluid repellent disposable gown;
  • Gloves with long, tight-fitting gloves;
  • FFP3 respirator, fit-tested;
  • Eye protection – either single-use goggles or full-face visors.

In addition, there must be the provision of either hot water and soap for handwashing, or alcohol hand rub. Rings, wristwatches and wrist jewellery must not be worn. These control measures are only required where the worker is coming into direct contact with a patient in isolation

It is likely that the workforce will be concerned about exposure risks due to the tone of media reporting. It is important that workers are provided with accurate factual information on the Coronavirus by their employer. There must be information provided on the control measures implemented, particularly where exposure is a possibility.

Workers who may be required to provide care services to isolated patients, should be trained to do so, and given information on any additional infection prevention and control measures needed to work in such environments including the safe use and disposal of PPE.

GMB Safety Representatives must be kept informed of all control measures being implemented. There must be consultation arrangements in place that allow safety representatives to raise concerns with senior managers.

Members who are concerned should speak to their local Safety Representative and check the links below for regular updates.

Further resources


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