An independent public inquiry into how the government handled the coronavirus pandemic began last week, led by Baroness Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge.
She has promised that she will conduct a “thorough” and “fair” hearing into how the pandemic unfolded, and whether things could have been done better.
But as the inquiry begins, there have been reports of a new autumn wave of the virus. Data released by the Office for National Statistics show that in the week ending 3 October, 1.7 million people in the UK had tested positive for coronavirus, shooting up by almost a third in a week. This is the biggest rise since June.
The ZOE health study, which asks people to log symptoms via a smartphone app, suggests the numbers could be even higher, with an average of one in 32 people symptomatic with Covid in the UK.
According to co-founder Professor Tim Spector, most cases now start with a sore throat, with symptoms from previous waves such as loss of smell and fever increasingly rare.
Dealing with Covid
The likelihood of a new spike in cases has grown as our immunity from vaccines and previous infections wanes, there is increased mixing indoors and children return to school and university.
But while the government has renewed restrictions in previous years when case numbers have risen, it remains to be seen whether this will happen this autumn and winter.
Responding to the rise in cases, Sarah Crofts, deputy director for the Covid-19 infection survey at the Office for National Statistics, said: “Infections have continued to increase in England, reaching levels last seen in mid-August.
“The rest of the UK is a mixed picture, with uncertain trends in Wales and Scotland and a recent increase in Northern Ireland.”
Advice for workplaces from the Health and Safety Executive no longer requires businesses to consider Covid precautions in their risk assessments, or to have specific measures in place to stop the spread.
Workplaces where employees come into contact with the virus directly in their work, however, have the right to be protected.
But while there are unlikely to be formal restrictions on employers should cases rise further, that does not stop businesses taking precautions under their own steam.
This means workplaces either need to purchase testing kits for staff to check whether their symptoms suggest they have the virus, or rely on workers to buy them to test themselves.
World Health Organisation guidance suggests routine screening of at-risk workers alongside “clear and consistent policies for workers displaying symptoms”.
There is no longer a legal requirement for someone to self-isolate if they have symptoms of Covid-19 or have tested positive, although NHS guidance recommends they stay from home and avoid large numbers of people.
For many managers this may involve a simple decision to allow someone to work from home, but in jobs where this is not possible this may prove more difficult.
Furthermore, with many workers impacted by the soaring cost of living, it’s feasible that some may see advantages in returning to a physical place of work rather than heating up their home.
But increased numbers in the office could impact how many employees are at risk of contracting the virus, so this is a risk that HR teams and managers should balance with other factors.
It’s worth noting that the HSE also has advice on how to improve ventilation in the workplace, as bringing in fresh air has been shown to lower the risk of airborne transmission of respiratory viruses including Covid.
Acas guidance encourages employers to support staff in getting the Covid vaccine, with booster doses currently being rolled out to those over the age of 50 or who are clinically vulnerable.
Proposals to require employees in certain care and health settings to have the vaccine as a condition of employment were swiftly ditched in February this year after pressure from unions.
A fourth, booster vaccine is now available to those over the age of 65 in England and is expected to be rolled out to the over-50s in the coming weeks.
With some experts predicting a ‘twindemic’ of catching where people could end up catching coronavirus and seasonal flu at the same time, it makes sense not to encourage large numbers of workers to congregate in enclosed spaces while cases are high.
Encouraging staff to work from home or ensuring office numbers are capped on certain days could be one strategy, health experts suggest.
Ultimately, with few legal obligations in place to impose restrictions during a new wave of Covid cases, it will be down to individual employers how they organise their workforce. But with one in four employers facing issues with Long Covid, they should keep the long-term health of employees in mind alongside current concerns.
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