Employers have been urged to be cautious and to remember their legal duty to keep employees safe at work as the final Covid-19 restrictions are removed in England.
Yesterday afternoon the prime minister announced that the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test will be removed from Thursday 24 February, along with self-isolation payments for those on low incomes.
The right to claim statutory sick pay from the first day of Covid-related absence will also be removed, meaning that those ill with the virus will only be paid from the fourth day they are off work.
Free Covid-19 lateral flow tests and PCR tests will be axed on 1 April, with the public and organisations asked to buy their own tests if they require them. Last month alone the testing programme cost the UK £2bn.
Boris Johnson told MPs: “While the pandemic is not over, we have passed the peak of the Omicron wave, with cases falling, and hospitalisations in England now fewer than 10,000 and still falling.
“Now we have the chance to complete that transition back towards normality, while maintaining the contingencies to respond to a resurgence or a new variant.”
He went on to say that scientists “are certain there will be new variants and it’s very possible that those will be worse than Omicron”.
Organisations are likely to put their own Covid-19 policies in place for workers going forward, with CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese suggesting that employers with staff who have direct contact with the public may want to mandate testing.
“When deciding what rules and guidance to put in place, employers need to be led by the principles of what is fair and reasonable to ask, respecting that many people with vulnerabilities will still be very concerned about coming into places of work,” he said.
“Reviewing or continuing existing practices to keep workplaces reasonably safe, for example with good ventilation, cleaning and sanitation, and meeting their fundamental duty of care to protect the physical and mental health of their employees will all need to continue to be a priority.”
Cheese added that organisations must continue to be vigilant and encourage individual and collective responsibility.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that workers should not be expected to “fork out themselves for tests”.
“Just hoping that employers will do the right thing I think is frankly for the birds,” she told the BBC.
“Millions of workers need the government to take responsibility and not just gamble on their health, or frankly, our public health.”
The British Chambers of Commerce’s co-executive director Claire Walker said the government “must not pass public health decisions on to the business community, who are not public health experts”.
“Members continue to tell us that access to free testing is key to managing workplace sickness and maintaining consumer confidence. If the government is to remove this, companies must still be able to access tests on a cost-effective basis,” she said.
The CBI’s chief policy director Matthew Fell said that mass testing has kept businesses open and organisations believed the economic benefits far outweigh the costs.
“While free testing cannot continue forever, there is a balance to be struck between confidence building and cost-cutting,” he said.
While free testing cannot continue forever, there is a balance to be struck between confidence building and cost-cutting.” – Matthew Fell, CBI
He added that the government should develop further guidance on issues such as sick pay and employer liability to “avoid the risk of a legal vacuum”.
Although the legal requirement to self-isolate will be removed, until 1 April people who test positive will still be advised to stay at home. After that, people will be encouraged to “exercise personal responsibility”, Johnson told the House of Commons.
He said that UK workers should learn from Germany and avoid work when they are ill. However, it has been pointed out by several commentators including the TUC’s O’Grady and Labour MP Zarah Sultana that the proportion of workers’ salaries covered by sick pay in Germany is 100%, whereas in the UK it is 19%.
Almost one in three UK employers will not require staff who test positive to self-isolate when the remaining restrictions are lifted, according to a poll of 250 business leaders by HR software firm Ciphr.
Nearly half (48%) are planning to tell staff with Covid to stay at home, while 21% are still unsure how they will deal with the imminent easing of self-isolation restrictions.
Ciphr chief people officer Claire Williams said: “In environments that are purely office-based, where a large proportion of employees will have been vaccinated, employers may take the view that employees should use their common sense and treat it like any other flu or illness – don’t work if you are unwell, and be conscious of not coming into the office and spreading any bugs.
“However, other employers will, understandably, take a far more cautious approach. If, for example, you work in health or social care, it’s more likely that employers will want their employees to be testing negative and to self-isolate to minimise transmission. There is certainly no right or wrong in this scenario and it has to be assessed as per any other risk that a company is presented with.”