As the number of cases of the omicron variant continues to grow, the Prime Minister confirmed at a press conference last Wednesday that “Plan B” measures that would be put in place for England. What do these measures mean for employers? Emma O’Connor, Director and Megan Manganaro, Trainee, discuss.
We first heard of “Plan B” back in September 2021 when the Government published its Autumn and Winter Covid Plan. As the number of cases of the omicron variant continues to grow in England and across the devolved nations, the Prime Minister confirmed at a press conference last Wednesday that “Plan B” measures would be put in place. Below relates to England, for the devolved nations please seek specific advice.
What is “Plan B”?
“Plan B” or the government’s “Winter Plan” is intended to “keep people safe while minimising disruption to daily life” and will involve the following:
From Friday 10 December, face coverings will become compulsory in most public indoor venues such as cinemas, theatres and places of worship (unless exempt)*;
From Monday 13 December employees will be asked to work from home where possible; and,
From Wednesday 15 December COVID passes will become mandatory in venues where large crowds gather together, such as nightclubs and certain unseated indoor events with 500 or more attendees, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees and any event with 10,000 or more attendees.
*Face masks were already a legal requirement in shops, banks, post offices, hairdressers and on public transport in England as of 30 November. They are not required in hospitality settings/when eating, where undertaking exercise or when singing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Go to work if you must, but work from home if you can."
Government guidance – and it is guidance - states that "office workers who can work from home should do so" and people could continue to go to work "to access equipment necessary for their role, or where their role must be completed in person". According to ONS figures from back in the Summer, the majority of the UK workforce does not work in an office or is able to do their job from home. One person’s definition of go to work “if you must” may differ from another so a sensible conversation is advisable between manager and team.
There is also an acknowledgment that employers should think about the mental health of their staff when deciding who should stay at home as well as those who have a "challenging home working environment". However, will employers necessarily know of an employee’s “challenging home working environment”?
For those employees who are coming into work, employers should also be thinking about other health and safety obligations – cleaning, ventilation, limiting numbers of visitors etc. – although social distancing is not part of government rules. Also, thinking about how employees travel to and from work and whether this needs to be modified might also be a sensible way forward. Thinking too about our people who are more vulnerable at this time and if disabled, what reasonable adjustments might be needed over the coming months – this could include working from home. Risk assessments are important for all staff, customers and visitors.
With regards to homeworking more generally, employers should consider:-
Specific risk assessments for home working and also using laptops of display screen equipment at home;
Security, insurance and expenses related to working from home and using employer equipment at home;
Data protection and confidential information – what does your employee has access to and is the data protected?
Setting expectations and a framework around home working;
Making sure there is contact with team members – online meetings, 1:1s and social events, those check-ins are really important;
Isolation and mental health – this is a really uncertain time again for people, what can employers do to offer support?
Covid-contact: New self-isolation requirements
In England, the rules are changing. From Tuesday, 14 December, over-18s who are double-vaccinated and who are notified as being a close contact of a person with any Covid variant should take daily lateral flow tests for seven days. They do not need to self-isolate unless they themselves test positive on a PCR, have Covid symptoms, or are waiting for the results of a PCR test after developing Covid symptoms. Self-isolation lasts for 10 days from the day they took the positive rapid test or developed symptoms. For those who have not had 2 doses of a coronavirus vaccine they will still need to isolate if they are a contact of a positive Covid case (there are other rules relating to household cases). Under-18s don't have to self-isolate after contact with a positive case, even if they are not vaccinated, although they are advised to take a PCR test. Anyone who does not self-isolate when required to could be fined. In England, fines start at £1,000 rising to £10,000.
It is worth bearing in mind that rules relating to isolation differ depending on whether an individual is “pinged” by the NHS Covid App or contacted by an NHS contact tracer.
COVID testing rules for travellers to the UK have also changed. Proof of negative tests will now be required from anyone above 5 years old both before departure to, and after arrival in, the UK even if fully vaccinated. This includes self-isolating while waiting for a result. Unvaccinated passengers must also take a pre-departure test, PCR test on day 2 and 8, and self-isolate for 10 days. Test to release remains an option to shorten their self-isolation period. The government has announced all 11 countries on the UK red list will be removed from 4am Wednesday 15 December as Omicron spreads in countries around the world. Passengers returning from Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe will not have to stay in a managed quarantine hotel on arrival in England from this date.
“We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again”?
Some employers will take the announcement in their stride while others will be nervous as to what the next few weeks have in store, especially after working hard to ensure a safe and gradual return to the workplace for their employees. Employees too may feel the effects, having recently returned to the office or ‘got the hang of’ hybrid working. What is key is communication and setting clear expectations. We do not know how long this new advice will be in place for and this uncertainty to both businesses and employees is going to be difficult, but working together within a clearly communicated framework with lots of support and check-ins will help as we once again move into uncertain times.
To discuss the return to homeworking, including how managers should lead remote teams, please contact the Employment team at [email protected]. To keep up to date with developments in employment law, sign up to our newsletteror join us for our next webinar: 2021 the year that was.
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.