Occupational health risk assessments have been recommended for employees who could be vulnerable to severe health complications resulting from Covid-19 exposure at work, as all coronavirus restrictions are lifted in England.
Clinicians from the Department of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial College London urged organisations to consider workforce-wide policies that encourage self-isolation with “fair pay” in order to reduce the risks posed to people with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to illness from Covid-19.
This is despite the removal of all legal mandates in England from today (24 February), with the government instead recommending, rather than requiring, individuals to stay at home and avoid contact with others if they test positive.
Those sick with coronavirus will also have to wait until the fourth day of their illness before they can claim statutory sick pay, which has raised concerns that individuals will choose to work when unwell – potentially spreading the virus to others – in order to continue earning.
In an article published in the BMJ this week, academics and clinicians from Imperial College London said that by ending mandatory self-isolation while also removing financial support packages, the government is “failing to adequately support people in lower paid occupations to protect themselves and others from Covid-19, and risks widening existing socio-economic and health inequalities”.
They advised employers to develop their own policies to keep workers’ safe.
The article says: “Employers should consider workforce wide policies to encourage self-isolation with fair pay when employees are infectious with Covid-19, now that the legal mandate will be removed.
“Where this is not possible, individual occupational health risk assessments for employees vulnerable to severe Covid-19 infection and its consequences should inform reasonable adjustments to their workplace duties.
“This will include, for example, examining how many people are allowed into the workplace at one time, ensuring good indoor ventilation, and mitigation measures such as high quality face masks are used as appropriate.
“For example, a retail assistant undergoing chemotherapy for cancer… may be at high risk of acquiring Covid-19 at work with significant medical complications now that the legislation mandating self-isolation is going to be withdrawn. Who takes on the responsibility for this risk, and how can discrimination along the social gradient or against those with disability be avoided?”
The vaccination status of staff and Covid infection rates in the areas surrounding workplaces and where staff live should also be used to inform health and safety policies, they advise.
As of 23 February 2022, almost 40,000 new Covid-19 cases had been reported, with the seven-day average having fallen to 41,307. At the height of the omicron wave, on 5 January 2022, 194,494 cases were recorded with the average over the preceding seven days at 182,908.
At 22 February, 72.8% of the UK population had been fully-vaccinated with two doses, and 56.7% had received a booster.
“Most adults in the UK have now had two Covid-19 vaccinations, but a large proportion (around one in three) have not yet come forward for a booster vaccine. Recent data show that the booster dose is essential in reducing the risk of serious illness, hospital admission, and death from a Covid-19 infection caused by the omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant,” the BMJ article says.
“Employers will need to work with their staff to promote Covid-19 vaccination, but as the recent reversal in government policy for mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers shows, this is not straight forward.”
The academics suggested that infection rates could remain “tolerable” for workplaces over the spring and summer, but warned that waning population immunity would pose a threat when the usual seasonal increase in respiratory viral infections is seen over the autumn and winter.