The government’s surprise announcement that it will end self-isolation for people who test positive for coronavirus a month earlier than planned has left organisations in a quandary over whether to formulate their own policies or await new guidance.
Concerns surround the likelihood that the public – in response to the announcement – will believe that testing and precautions are no longer needed and more employees will enter workplaces with Covid unknowingly. There are also frustrations with the lack of a joint international response and the lack of planning for people with suppressed immunity.
Self-isolation regulations were due to expire on 24 March, meaning that the law is set be axed on or around Thursday 24 February, two weeks from today.
Prime minister Boris Johnson told parliament yesterday that he would provide a further update on 21 February.
He said: “Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we’ll be able to end the last domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive, a full month early.”
“We’d expect anyone with an infectious disease to take steps not to spread that disease further – a colleague at work with flu, for example.”
It is not thought that the move was informed by any specific scientific advice – none has been published – while evidence from the government’s Sage advisers in mid-January suggested that lifting of plan B measures could result in a return to epidemic growth, “particularly if precautionary behaviour, including testing, decreases as a result of reduced perception of risk” gives an idea of potential risks”.
However, infection rates continue to fall: between 3 February 2022 and 9 February 2022, 485,074 people had a confirmed positive test result. This represented a decrease of 22.8% compared with the previous seven days.
Covid and vaccinations
One epidemiologist, professor Tim Spector, who runs the Zoe app Covid study at King’s College London, told Times Radio: “This is more a political type of statement rather than a scientific one … I think what they’re relying on is data that is highly disputed scientifically so they can say that, really, the UK has come out of this faster and better than anyone else.”
Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at St Andrews University and a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, Johnson’s move was likely to send the wrong message.
He said: “Taking away the obligation to self-isolate is the final and most powerful way of saying ‘it’s all over’ and that infections don’t matter,” he said. “We know that perceptions of risk are critical to adherence and that people won’t do things if they believe there is no need to do them, however much they are urged.”
David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law, told Personnel Today that employers urgently needed to know what new guidance they needed to follow. He said: “For now, employers should start to think carefully about balancing their duty of care to all employees and how to continue running their organisations under the shadow of Covid-19.
“Will Covid-19 now be treated like a cold or the flu? Will employees want to come in with mild symptoms or take time off if they feel bad? Will employers want them to come in to work?”
This inconsistency in international approach has caused confusion for many employers throughout the pandemic” – Dr Anthony Renshaw, International SOS
Jepps warned that the ending of special statutory sick pay arrangements for those who had tested positive but had no symptoms could be problematic, with employees coming to work and putting employers at risk of contravening duty of care rules.
He said: “Updated risk assessments will need to be made. If home working is feasible, it should be continued for employees who have tested positive for Covid. If not, if workers are too ill to work, they should stay away from work and be paid sick pay as with any other illness. If they are not ill as such then employers need to think about paying sick pay anyway or workable measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing or even some form of self-isolation within the workplace.”
Kingsley Napley employment partner Richard Fox said the loss of government guidance could lead employers to introduce “infection policies” to set rules and standards for the entire organisation so everyone is clear. He added: “It may not be wise to leave it to individual managers to take a view on isolation and vaccine requirements for members of their own departments, as that could lead to legal risk for the employer. Employers will remain responsible for the health and safety of their workers and if the government is going to remove itself from the process, other arrangements will have to come in to fill the gap.” He suggested that Acas or similar body could assume a new role of Acas of providing guidance to employers.
Dr Anthony Renshaw, regional medical director at global medical and security consultancy, International SOS, pointed to the lack of a joined-up international response being a problem for businesses: “This inconsistency in international approach has however caused confusion for many employers throughout the pandemic,” he said. “The status of reopening will remain asynchronous for a while depending on the different status of the local epidemics in different countries.
It may not be wise to leave it to individual managers to take a view on isolation and vaccine requirements” – Richard Fox, Kingsley Napley
“Although some businesses may simply take government guidance, other companies have assessed their responses to announcements more cautiously, taking medical guidance on which measures can be safely relaxed or should be maintained, both to protect business continuity and to maintain the duty of care owed to their workers.”
He added that during this “noisy infodemic”, companies were increasingly turning to their health advisers to guide HR and crisis teams. Health advisers would establish the right epidemiological metrics to track, provide focused briefings to executives, and provide health data and granular on-the-ground assessments that might facilitate the reopening of an office or be a trigger to necessitate a change of track. This, he said “is how the most agile companies are increasingly responding to the changing dynamics of the pandemic”.
Author and journalist Stephen Pollard, who has leukemia, pointed to the apparent lack of planning behind Johnson’s announcement when it came to people with suppressed immunity. He said on Twitter: “PM has effectively just told half a million people with compromised immunity we can go to hell and our lives are worthless. There is a way to cover our needs AND wave all restrictions, but all PM has done is the latter – a consistent patter since shielding stopped.
“The issue is no plan for allowing us to go about our lives i.e. anti [virals] etc used for prevention. This is standard in US, Germany, Israel etc but not here where government refuses to allow us to have preventive treatments other than vaccine (useless for us).”
Echoing Pollard’s concerns Fox said that the end of the isolation rules could prove a disincentive for members of the “older workforce” and those with caring responsibilities or health vulnerabilities to come back into work.