With predictions that UK Covid-19 cases could hit 100,000 a day, HR professionals are being urged to prepare for the potential return of mass home working as the government comes under pressure to enact ‘plan B’.
Although health secretary Sajid Javid has said the government was not considering reintroducing restrictions yet, rising hospitalisations and daily positive tests have prompted organisations that represent healthcare workers to warn that the NHS risks becoming overwhelmed if action is not taken soon.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it did not agree with the decision not to trigger ‘plan B’ – which could include the return of government advice to work from home where possible and the mandatory wearing of face masks in some settings.
Prior to Javid’s press conference, the NHS Confederation called for the work from home mandate to be reintroduced.
“The message from health leaders is clear – it is better to act now, rather than regret it later,” said Taylor.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association – which represents doctors – said it was “wilfully negligent” of the government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
“Only last week two select committees found the UK was an international outlier when it came to public health policy during this crisis. We are rapidly approaching a position where, yet again, the government is delaying for too long, and equivocating over taking action. This is the time to learn the lessons of the past and act fast, or else we will face far more extreme measures later,” he said.
Home and hybrid working
Yesterday, Javid revealed that daily positive Covid-19 tests had been above 40,000 for eight days in a row and had surged to 49,139 on Wednesday. He urged the public to get vaccinated – around 14% of people aged 12 and over have not yet had a jab – and to wear face masks in crowded areas.
The government has previously indicated that advice to work from home could return if Covid hospitalisations increase. As of 19 October, 7,891 people were in hospital with Covid-19 and 850 were in ventilation beds. Around 13,900 people were in hospital with the virus and 1,183 on ventilators when the second national lockdown in England began on 5 November 2020.
HR should prepare now
It is likely that if ‘plan B’ and government guidance to work from home is implemented, it will come into effect very quickly and employers could have little time to react, said Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at HR support service Peninsula.
“Organisations should use this time to assess whether working from home is a viable option and make the necessary arrangements to prepare for homeworking. This may involve distributing and setting up equipment, reviewing IT policies and technologies, consulting with staff on its possibility and discussing any individual employee concerns on a one-one basis,” said Palmer.
She noted that employers had seen an increase in requests for flexible and home working since the pandemic hit, and requests could increase further as Covid-19 cases climb – especially from individuals with health conditions or concerns about spreading the virus to vulnerable family members.
Employers who have been implementing more formal return to work policies since September…are likely to find any new government guidance on working from home extremely frustrating and disruptive” – Stephen Ravenscroft, Memery Crystal
Stephen Ravenscroft, head of employment at law firm Memery Crystal, said any return of government advice to work from home would be disruptive for employers.
“Those employers who have been implementing more formal return to work policies since September, and may have been dealing with flexible working requests or grievances from employees resistant to a full-time return to the office, are likely to find any new government guidance on working from home extremely frustrating and disruptive,” he said.
“There may be an increase in such employers requesting their staff to confirm their vaccination status (including receipt of a booster jab) in order to continue working in the office, which in itself could present additional employment law and data protection challenges.”
Ravenscroft also warned that some employers may have no option but to consider redundancies or short term lay-offs if home working was to resume now that the furlough scheme has been withdrawn.
Employers should take a balanced view on the risks to employees if they are required to work from the office, said Claire Williams, director of people and services at HR software platform CIPHR. For example, HR should consider the proportion of staff who are vaccinated, whether any employees are at high risk of illness and whether safety measures remain in place in the office.
Williams said: “All organisations will be different when it comes to their expectations around office working longer term. For us, it has been a gradual return, allowing for employees input and – to a degree – choice along the way. However, as we expect more frequent office attendance, we have been incredibly mindful that this could cause an increase in turnover of employees who have achieved a great work life balance over the past 18 months.
“We are pro-actively engaging with employees to promote our flexible working policy. This helps protect the organisation by ensuring that any permanent changes to working arrangements – including working from home – are considered as part of the wider business needs, and managed under a statutory framework. It also, hopefully, encourages and supports employees in maintaining a better work life balance than they may have had pre-Covid, which ultimately means we can retain our top talent.”