23 March 2020 seems an incredibly long time ago. Four days earlier the Prime Minister had said that the UK could turn the tide of coronavirus in 12 weeks. Well, 23 months later it seems the wait is over.
What did the Prime Minister say? What impact will it have on businesses and their employees? The timetable is ambitious.
From 21 February 2022
The need for teachers and pupils to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing will end.
From 24 February 2022
(i) The legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test will end. Adults will be advised to stay at home and minimise contact for at least five days and then follow the guidance until they have two negative tests on consecutive days.
(ii) Those who are fully vaccinated close contacts will not have to self-test for seven days and the legal requirement to isolate for those who are not fully vaccinated will end.
(iii Routine contact tracing will end.
(iv) Those who test positive will no longer be legally obliged to tell their employers when they are required to self-isolate.
(v) The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) (No.3) Regulations will be revoked. Local authorities will be required to deal with local outbreaks
From 24 March 2022
The Covid-19 provisions in the Statutory Sick Pay and Employment and Support Allowances will be removed.
From 1 April 2022
(i) The current guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification in domestic settings will be removed and the Government will no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
(ii) Guidance setting out the steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people will be updated. This will align with the changes to testing.
(iii) Free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing will end in England.
(iv) Guidance to the public and businesses will be consolidated in line with public health advice.
(v) Employers will no longer have to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their health & safety risk assessments.
(vi) Replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance.
The detail of what will replace the existing regime is still to be revealed but the course set by the Government is clear, if out of step with the majority of the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that this would happen. Staying in lockdowns was never going to be an option; this last lockdown has perhaps been the worst to date. Whilst the start of the first lockdown was tinged with fear there was a bizarre sense of adventure; 12 weeks working from home, but that is all a long time ago.
What does this mean for employers?
Whilst the restrictions are being paired back the advice to “behave safely” will remain – wearing a face covering in crowded settings; staying at home if unwell; taking a test and staying at home if displaying Covid-19 symptoms. The Government is to continue to advise employers on the steps they can take to reduce risks in the workplace from Covid-19.
The removal of the need to consider the health and safety requirements arising from Covid-19 is intended to allow employers to respond in a manner best suited to their business and circumstances. Employers will still have an obligation to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable for the health, safety and welfare at work for its employees. The removal of the strict guidelines does not change an employer’s responsibilities for its employees.
In reality little may change, certainly in the early days. For some who have been going to their workplace the numbers attending will have been low; social distancing has been relatively easy. There will now be a cadre of people who have not really engaged with the use of public transport for two years; others who have been home based possibly because they are vulnerable and others out of concern for the possible impact of the virus. Employers will have to weigh up not only the continuing guidance, the need to ensure good ventilation but also how employees returning to the workplace will feel. What is going to give them comfort that they are reasonably safe at work?
Employers will have a significant role to play in keeping their workforces informed and reminding them of the benefits of isolation if they test positive. How will employers respond to the issue of pay / sick pay if they want employees to isolate, when they may have only mild symptoms and want to work to avoid being paid SSP only. If employers impose an obligation to stay at home then they may have to pay full-pay. Equally, if the virus remains highly transmissible, allowing employees to stay at work will cause others to be infected and potentially have a much more adverse impact.
Ensuring that employees have good mental health will be an important issue. Fear will be a factor for many, others will have got used to the rhythm of their new lifestyle. Where there is a desire to return to work as normal, there are likely to be applications for flexible work on the basis that they have been able to work largely remotely over the past two years. If a flood of such requests are made it will put a significant strain on HR departments unless the requests are accepted.
With the ending of the need to self-isolate, how will employers deal with those who contract the virus but want to carry on working? Employees will no longer be under a duty to advise their employer of a positive test result, will, or should, employers ask employees to take a lateral flow test daily or twice weekly to go into an office? Given that would be a change of contract, mandating it might be difficult where the need to test at a national level has been withdrawn.
With the changing environment, employers will need to communicate clearly with employees what they have done and are doing in relation to Covid-19.
Is Covid-19 to become the new flu? No one knows, even the Government paper acknowledges, that there will be further variants, whether they remain as mild as Omicron or revert to the more severe variants such as Delta.
The promised guidance from the Government is eagerly awaited. Hopefully, it will help businesses unravel some of the answers to the many questions that arise.