With new variants sparking a fresh rise in coronavirus cases across the UK and no formal government guidance, how should employers respond?
Although the news may have been focusing on political movers and shakers, it’s hard to escape that the UK is experiencing a new rise in Covid-19 cases. According to the Office for National Statistics, coronavirus cases jumped by 18% in the past week. The previous week they rose 32%.
The surge is being driven by two new fast-spreading sub-variants of the Omicron variant – BA.4 and BA.5. In England, the ONS estimates that one in 25 people has the virus, and Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, anticipates there will be a rise in hospital admissions as a result.
In Scotland the rate is one in 17, up from one in 18 the week before.
The knock-on effect for employers is most obvious in absence levels. Data from workplace health company GoodShape suggests that 3.8 million days were taken off work during June for Covid-related reasons, doubling the number of days in May.
The cost of these absences, according to GoodShape, is an estimated £544 million, with the health and education sectors worst affected. Does this mean it’s time to reinstate workplace precautions such as mask wearing or asking colleagues to socially distance?
Katherine Easter, chief people officer at the Pension Protection Fund, plans to bring back lateral flow testing before employees attend the office. “We continued to provide tests after the government stopped providing them,” she says. “We stopped testing at the end of May but have continued to review the numbers and now feel we should go back.”
Rise in Covid cases
As with many workplaces, employees at the PPF had got used to being back in the office at least some of the time so there are “mixed feelings” on returning to some level of precaution, adds Easter.
“We know we don’t have control over transport, but we want to limit transmission in the office. We are also asking people to work from home if they have any sense they are unwell in any way or if members of their family are positive,” she says.
There are no longer any formal government-mandated restrictions or reporting requirements in place, with advice instead for employers to provide ventilation and consult with workers on any changes they make that might affect health and safety.
A report by a team of researchers from the Health Security Agency and University of Bristol this week, for example, highlighted the need for more investment in better ventilation systems and risk management processes as cases continue to rise.
James Thurlow-Craig, managing director of Create Designs, says being a small team means there can be a risk of one person potentially infecting the entire team, “which would be disastrous for business”.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have been taking various steps to reduce the risk of Covid having a major impact on the team’s productivity and ability to work,” he says, and during 2020 and 2021 for the most part everyone worked from home.
During the current wave, the company will offer lateral flow tests to the team to be taken on Mondays, Tuesdays and Friday. “Before entering the office, we have a drop box to put the test in. This helps to avoid staff forgetting,” he adds.
“It’s most likely that if anybody is going to catch the virus, it will be at the weekend when they are out and about, so having tests on both Monday and Tuesday helps mitigate the incubation period somewhat. One employee showed a faint positive in recent weeks but was asymptomatic, so was asked to work from home and the risk was averted.”
“While we are living in different times compared to a year ago, undoubtedly due to the large uptake of Covid vaccinations and the apparent reduction of severity of the virus itself leading to much lower hospital admittance rates, with a lack of government guidance, it is for employers to balance the health and safety risk presented by rising rates relative to their workforce,” advise Laura Oxley and Giulia Patti, senior employment associates at law firm Walker Morris.
That means if employees contract the virus and are able and willing to work from home, they should do so until they test negative, they suggest. “However, complications arise when employees wish to continue to attend work whilst testing positive. Employers therefore need to be careful and ensure they take a consistent approach to avoid possible claims of discrimination, while always taking into account any ‘extenuating circumstances’ of employees including those that are likely to be deemed to be vulnerable from a health perspective (including any employees who are pregnant or disabled),” they add.
With a lack of government guidance, it is for employers to balance the health and safety risk presented by rising rates relative to their workforce” – Laura Oxley & Giulia Patti, Walker Morris
Where employees are not able to work from home, businesses should weigh up the costs of asking them to stay at home on their usual salary versus the risk of them coming in and potentially risking the health of colleagues and customers. “Where the latter decision is taken, employers should consider whether it is appropriate to introduce additional safety measures such as face masks and/or social distancing,” say Oxley and Patti. “As with those employees that can work from home, a consistent approach should be taken.”
Jemma Fairclough-Haynes, CEO of Orchard Employment Law, says many employers have drawn up policies stating that staff who test positive cannot attend work. “This is to protect other staff members and service users who may be vulnerable but also to prevent mass outbreaks which could lead to staff shortages,” she explains.
She points to the case last year of Rodgers v Leeds Laser Cutting, where an employee was dismissed for refusing to return to work due to his concerns about contracting Covid at work. The tribunal found that it was not unlawful to dismiss someone whose refusal to come to the workplace was driven by a fear of Covid.
Remote vs office
Having navigated hybrid working and a return to the office for some months now, many organisations will be reluctant to return to a wholesale work from home movement, argues Laura Bosworth, CEO and founder of executive search company Worket, says: “I can see the shine starting to rub off from the WFH movement and unless mandated by government, I can’t see many organisations changing tack. Businesses are advertising new roles as ‘remote’ but really pinning preference on more local candidates.”
She argues that employers must continue to find a way to “live with” the virus and figure out how this will look for their staffing models long term. “One of the key issues is transparency of communication – as has been the case for the last two years,” she adds.
That said, with a tribunal recently ruling that long Covid can be considered a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, it’s clear that while many are more relaxed about the virus, for some employees it can have devastating effects on their personal and professional lives.
It’s impossible to predict whether the winter of 2022 will see more formal restrictions and a greater shift to working from home. But during the current surge of cases, a cautious approach could pay off.