With the outbreak of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, and the ripple effect of travel and border restrictions, government policies to encourage social distancing and the threat of a global recession as financial markets struggle to combat the economic impact of what is being described as one of the worst outbreaks of an infectious disease in the last century, the message of doom and gloom is clear.
The outbreak of the coronavirus began with cases of infected individuals in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province in China, marking the beginning of what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a global pandemic. Now over 140 countries grapple with how to contain and minimise its impact. Like many factions of society, the property market and the consequences for landlords are not immune from the uncertainty that pervades this global crisis. As such, it is important for landlords to consider what obligations they have in relation to the virus and the steps to take to meet those obligations.
What does the law reveal about the obligations of landlords?
At present there are no specific rules or regulations concerning duties imposed on landlords in relation to the virus. Key government bodies, namely Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care, remain mute on this subject. There is, however, some guidance from the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), to assist in shedding some light on what the current position is. According to the COSHH, a fundamental question is whether a landlord has a sufficient level of control to impact the health and safety conditions of the property. A landlord of a single let property is likely to be in a different position to a landlord of a multi storey building with communal areas, responsibility for the management of the building and for the wellbeing of cleaning and maintenance staff. Landlords acting solely in their capacity as landlord are unlikely to be in a position with enough control to prevent or curtail the effects of the virus and therefore, are unlikely to have duties over and above those contained in the legal documentation governing the relationship between them and a tenant or occupier of the property.
What is the position for landlords with a sufficient level of control?
The position regarding landlords with enough control to influence the health and safety conditions of the property is more unclear. Factors that will be important for this category of landlord to consider include the type and location of the property, the occupiers of the property and the role the landlord plays in relation to the property, particularly where this consists of management functions. Landlords with responsibilities relating to communal areas, areas accessible to the public and for properties for the elderly and individuals classed as vulnerable
to being most affected by the virus, may need to take steps to ensure that they keep up to date with and comply with any new official guidance on cleaning standards, disinfection practices, and the protection of these vulnerable groups. This will need to be balanced against the costs involved for the landlord to adopt measures. Due to the lack of guidance from the government at present, many landlords are taking a common sense approach to the steps they are taking to uphold the health and safety of tenants and occupiers of their properties. Given the level of uncertainty surrounding this crisis, until official advice is published, the right approach is likely to differ from landlord to landlord, being determined largely by an assessment of the circumstances, on a case by case basis.
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