What is COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and how is it spread?

The World Health Organisation has declared that the outbreak of coronavirus is a pandemic. The UK chief medical officers have raised the risk to the UK to high.

This outbreak will pose challenges for workplaces.

Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS keep their advice and information on the outbreak under constant review.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) also regularly updates its advice regarding travel, but the government has now advised against all unnecessary travel, including within the UK.


Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, which can cause illness in both animals and people. The most recently discovered coronavirus causes a disease called COVID-19. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Hubei province in December 2019.

The symptoms of COVID-19

COVID-19 presents with flu-like symptoms including a fever, a cough or difficulty breathing. It primarily affects your lungs and airways.

The current evidence is that most cases are mild. Generally, coronaviruses can cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

How COVID-19 spreads

Because it is a new illness, we do not know exactly how this strain of coronavirus spreads from person to person. However, similar viruses tend to spread via cough and sneeze droplets. Spread of COVID-19 is therefore most likely to happen when there is close contact with an infected person.

Social distancing

Social distancing is the act of increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness.

On 16 March, the government updated its advice regarding social distancing.

It advised everyone to stop all non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. Everyone who is able to should therefore work from home.

If you are concerned that your employer does not have plans in place to support the government’s policy on social distancing, speak to your Prospect rep or contact us for further advice.

The government also advised against attending any social venues where you are likely to be in close contact with others, such as pubs and restaurants.

It also announced new measures to take if you or the people you live with develop symptoms.

What happens if I need to self-isolate?

Protecting myself and others

  • Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.
  • Always wash your hands when you get home or into work
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands. If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow, rather than your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.
  • Face masks for the general public are not recommended to protect from infection, as there is no evidence of benefit from their use outside healthcare environments.
  • Work from home, if you can
  • Avoid social activities, such as going to pubs, restaurants, theatres and cinemas
  • Avoid events with large groups of people

Find out more

The UK government have issued advice to businesses and employers, that reps should be aware of if discussing this with employers. ACAS have also produced helpful information.

Get help

If you have further questions about this issue contact us for more help.