Harrogate solicitor urges businesses to publish coronavirus plans as a 'legal duty of care'

A Harrogate solicitor has urged all public-facing businesses to publish their plans to protect the public and employees from any potential outbreaks of coronavirus.

Thursday, 12th March 2020, 2:55 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th March 2020, 3:01 pm

Jonathan Mortimer, who is a solicitor at Harrogate's Raworths law firm, said all businesses need to recognise that they have a 'legal duty of care.'

This week the Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce claimed that high street footfall has dropped by 30 per cent due to coronavirus fears. Mr Mortimer said being as transparent as possible about a business's safety measures can help to increase consumer confidence.

Jonathan Mortimer, who is a solicitor at Harrogate's Raworths law firm, said all businesses need to recognise that they have a 'legal duty of care.'

He said: " I would recommend that all public-facing businesses publish their plans to protect the public and their employees from the possible further spread of the virus in order to maintain confidence and limit the impact on our local businesses.

“It is important for businesses to recognise that they have a legal duty of care to ensure that their premises are safe for their employees and customers.

"Possible measures could include, by way of example, turning off touch payment screens in shops, reducing the number of tables in restaurants to spread customers out, a commitment to deep cleaning every day, and perhaps all staff being required to wash their hands every 30 minutes.

“If businesses make it clear what steps they are taking, members of the public can make informed decisions as to risk, and if satisfied continue to support our local restaurants, shops and other public areas."

Mr Mortimer said a rapid spread of the virus has the potential to impact on all sectors of business, and that now is the time to take action.

He said: “With the virus spreading rapidly, there is not only understandable concern as to the impact on public health but now the potential for considerable disruption to local businesses in the weeks and months ahead.

“In the early stages of the outbreak, it has predominantly been the motor and electronics sectors which have been impacted the most as a result of China’s dominance in the market place. However, it is now becoming clear that the virus has the potential to impact on all sectors of business and indeed is knocking on the door of businesses here in Harrogate.

“The most likely problems will be shortages in staff, delays or no deliveries from suppliers, customers cancelling orders and an inability by your business to meet them. The key legal question which all businesses must ask is what are the legal consequences for the numerous ongoing contractual commitments already in place.

“The answer will only become clear on a thorough review of the contract and facts of the case. Detailed written contracts will frequently have what is called a force majeure provision which will set out what happens next if a contract becomes impossible or commercially too onerous to perform due to matters beyond the control of the parties.

"However, more informal contacts or those made orally are less likely to be specific leaving the affected party potentially exposed to a claim for non-performance regardless of the difficulties encountered.

"There will also frequently be added complexity with a chain of supply, since each contract in the chain may be on different terms and potentially subject to different laws if other parties are based abroad.”

Jonathan Mortimer recommends an urgent five-point plan for businesses:

- Check ongoing contracts to ascertain whether there is a provision which deals with a virus outbreak.

- If so, to understand the implications for you or the other business e.g. who could pull out of the contract and what you should do next.

- Not enter into any new contacts without checking that the terms provide for what happens in the event of the virus effecting ability to honour the contract by either party.

- Speak to customers and suppliers as a matter of urgency to anticipate problems and possibly agree a variation going forward to avoid disruption and possible claims.

- Check for business interruption insurance that may cover the disruption likely to be experienced.