Today marks exactly two years since the government announced the first Covid-19 lockdown, when millions of UK employees were told to “stay at home”.
On 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown as coronavirus cases soared, with people only allowed to leave their homes for basic shopping, one form of exercise a day and medical needs.
Only “key workers” in sectors such as healthcare, retail and transport were allowed to go to their physical place of work, while millions of others made the sudden switch to remote work.
A national day of reflection will take place today, with people urged to take a pause at noon to remember those who died from the virus. Over the past two years, there have been 142,000 Covid-related deaths in England and a further 21,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Throughout the first lockdown and across subsequent periods of restrictions – including January to March 2021 – many employers stepped up with practical support in terms of equipment and increased investment in mental and physical wellbeing.
HR teams faced a changing landscape of restrictions, testing and vaccinations as case numbers peaked and troughed over the two years, some dealing with high numbers of self-isolating staff or employees who have been affected by Long Covid.
According to health insurance company Towergate Health and Protection, 86% of employers believe the pandemic has increased workers’ expectations of the health support they receive from their employer.
“Two years on, the country thankfully seems to be emerging from the pandemic, but it has irreversibly changed many lives,” said Brett Hill, distribution director at the company.
“The pandemic has altered the way we live and work and has changed our outlook and expectations. Employees need greater health and wellbeing support now than ever before and employers need to look at new ways to assist their staff that matches with the change in circumstances and growth in need.”
However, the pandemic also shone a light on existing inequalities in the workforce, with research showing that women, ethnic minorities and low-paid workers were more likely to be impacted by government policies, or in receipt of furlough.
Sarah Jackson, family rights campaigner and visiting professor at Cranfield University School of Management, said the pandemic had improved employers’ perceptions of flexible working, but urged caution in the months ahead.
“Covid has been really hard on women. But two things give us cause to be hopeful. Flexible working has been decoupled – surely forever – from the ‘mummies-only’ track,” she said.
“We know flexibility is welcomed by men and women at every stage of life, for all sorts of reasons. While at home, men took on more childcare during the pandemic, and most say they want to continue. More gender equal roles at work and at home could be possible.
“But we also have to be careful. Hybrid focuses us on where work is done, not when or for how long. It’s only part of the reset we really need. Women continue to be more likely to choose to work from home, so there’s a risk they’ll be out-of-sight and out-of-mind.”
While most restrictions such as social distancing and mask-wearing have been dropped, a number of professional bodies have warned that employers are not out of the woods. Covid admissions in Scotland have reached a new peak while NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor this week called for free lateral flow testing to be reinstated for NHS staff.