'The end of COVID-19 self isolation: What should I be doing to keep the workplace safe?'
From 24 February 2022, Covid-19 self-isolation rules no longer applied in England as part of the government’s plan for ‘Living with Covid’, but what does this mean for your workplace?
As an employer you still have a duty of care towards your employees and a wider duty to do what is reasonably practicable to protect others affected by your business. Under Health and Safety legislation employers must provide a safe and secure working environment and so how can you effectively do that in the new Covid environment?
What are the new rules?
After 24 February 2022, individuals do not have to self-isolate following a positive test but will continue to be advised to stay at home for five days. Fully vaccinated close contacts will also not be required to test daily. Further, from 24 February 2022 it will no longer be a criminal offence for an individual to attend the workplace if they have tested positive for Covid-19 and workers will not be legally obliged to tell their employers when they are required to self-isolate. There are, however, separate guidelines in respect of vulnerable services, such as adult social care, healthcare, prisons and places of detention.
The government’s current working safely guidance will remain in force until 1 April 2022, which is also the last date when Covid-19 must be included in workplace risk assessments and when Covid-19 testing is free. After that time this guidance will be replaced by new public health guidance (although this is yet to be published) and it is advisable that you take time to review this once available.
From 24 March, the specific Covid-19 provisions within Statutory Sick Pay and Employment and Support Allowance regulations will end. It may be, however, that employees with COVID-19 are still eligible for SSP if they would be entitled under the normal conditions.
What are the likely consequences of the rule changes and what future changes should I be preparing for?
The change in the rules may have many personal as well as professional consequences in the workplace. It may well be that some of your employees are not ready to move on from the restrictions and stringent rules previously in place relating to reducing the spread of Covid-19, whereas other employees may feel it is about time that these rules and restrictions were loosened.
These polarised views may lead to conflict in the workplace, and it is advisable to speak to all employees informally and confidentially on their return to the office to establish their thoughts on Covid-19 risk. Where possible it is advisable to try and be sensitive to individual feelings and make adjustments where reasonably possible.
Employers will need to deal with the consequences of there being less legal requirements relating to Covid-19 on a practical level. If there are still individuals who are concerned about Covid-19 in the workplace you may look at which areas are communal and where people are at close quarters in the workplace and whether ‘safer behaviours’ are appropriate to provide reassurance to employees in those areas.
A direct consequence of the legal changes is that employers will need to decide how they manage employees who are themselves or live with those who are “clinically vulnerable”. It is advisable to consult with these employees before any changes are made in the workplace which reduce Covid-19 related restrictions. These individuals are more likely to feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace when the legal requirement to self-isolate is removed (although assumptions should not be made and direct communication should be established with the individual). As a business, you may prefer not to retain home working or a hybrid arrangement and many employees will not want this either, but you should consider making exceptions for some individuals if this does not lead to divisions in the workplace or isolation of particular employees.
If working from home is not possible or desirable for your business, you should deal with any nervousness from employees by discussing their concerns. You could, for example, offer them to be sat near to a window, or further away from others in a separate office. This will of course all be dependent on your resources and the role being performed by the staff member, but discussions about the rule changes in wider society and the workplace and what would make people feel safer if they are uncomfortable, is a positive first step and something your business should try to prepare for.
In terms of future changes, with the reduction of government restrictions, it is likely that employers are going to have more responsibility and latitude over how the workplace manages Covid-19, at least in the short term. This will likely mean performing an updated risk assessment and reviewing practices relating to Covid-19 and your workplace. It is important to trial changes to policies and review them in terms of productivity and profitability from a business stance but also by communicating with staff to ensure any new rules you introduce are working for them, so that your team is likely to be retained. You may consider further training is appropriate for your management and HR team, as well as updates to your grievance and other related policies, in order to fully prepare for the changes to the Covid-19 rules.
What are the key things I should consider to reduce risks and keep staff and others safe from Covid-19 at work?
Whilst the way in which your workplace operates may be different to others, below are some general ideas to consider in order to minimise the risks in your workplace, particularly for the most vulnerable:
- It is worth considering not only whether you feel that the working environment is safe, but also the feedback from your staff. Open dialogue with your employees on where they feel there could be improvements or reductions of risk is important. As are trial periods for any changes to rules and procedures so they can be adapted to best suit your staff and business.
- If it is possible for a staff member to work from home and they are feeling unwell or test positive for Covid-19, you may decide to encourage them to do so and have this written in specific company policy. If you would like assistance in writing such a policy, our specialist employment solicitors can help.
- As the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme relating to Covid-19 sickness absences closes on 17 March and the final claims must be submitted by 24 March 2022, SSP rules return to as they were pre-pandemic. This means that there will not be a right to SSP from day one if people are unable to work because they are sick or self-isolating because of Covid-19. It may be that you choose to incentivise staff to test by stating that if they can provide evidence of a positive Covid-19 test they will be paid for those days they are at home, if they are unable to work from home.
- As free Covid-19 testing is to be discontinued on 1 April 2022, you may consider purchasing test kits for those who show symptoms to encourage testing. Again, if you choose to make these tests available for free or at a small cost, you could highlight this in a specific company policy.
- You may want to consider introducing or retaining the following ‘safer behaviours’ in communal spaces to offer extra reassurance to staff and to help minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission:
- encouraging staff to get vaccinated and provide information on how and where and allow time off work to assist with this;
- let fresh air in if meeting indoors, or meeting outside in better weather. You could also investigate how you can improve air flow in poorly ventilated areas;
- encouraging the use of face coverings in busier areas and enclosed spaces;
- encouraging staff to stay at home if they are unwell;
- encouraging staff to take a test if they have Covid-19 symptoms, and to stay at home to avoid contact with other people if they test positive;
- encouraging thorough hand washing and sanitising; and
- providing enhanced cleaning procedures in communal areas and open or non-contact doors, where possible.