Employers facing confusion over lifting of Covid restrictions

Employers face confusion and difficult decisions in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lifting of all Covid restrictions from Thursday.

Tired women at work

 

Businesses are facing confusion over their health and safety responsibilities in the wake of the Prime Minister’s announcement on the lifting of Covid restrictions yesterday and are being advised to communicate openly and honestly with employees to allay any fears.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, said they will need a sound business case to explain very clearly why a Covid isolation policy is needed, for instance, to protect vulnerable staff and clients.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson controversially announced the lifting of all Covid restrictions in England yesterday as part of his ‘Living with Covid’ plan. That means the end of free Covid tests from 1st April, no legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive Covid test from 24th  February, no requirement for fully vaccinated individuals and under 18s to test themselves for seven days after coming into contact with a positive case, no requirement for unvaccinated close contacts to be legally required to isolate, the ending of the £500 payment to support people who are self-isolating from 24th February and a return to pre-pandemic Statutory Sick Pay [SSP] rules from 24th March.

Price said: “This is a complicated and confusing time for employers, who are now left wondering if they will have to manage employees coming into the workplace whilst they are Covid-positive. There are also many people who are clinically vulnerable and will be especially concerned following today’s announcements.

“Employers will have to look closely at their Health & Safety policies and procedures, to ensure the workplace continues to be safe from Covid; this might mean (re)introducing safety measures such as face masks, hand sanitiser, etc.”

He added that some employers may want to introduce a contractual isolation requirement, so they can tell employees not to come into the workplace if they have Covid. However, it will be up to individual employers to decide how they want this to work in practice, he stated.

Until 1st April, there is still guidance in place to isolate for five days if you test positive for Covid, but with the lifting of free testing from the 1st of April, employers will have to decide what their testing policy will be, if they will provide tests for employees or whether they expect employees to pay for them themselves.

Price stated: “Employers will also need to make decisions about pay for employees who test positive for Covid. SSP for Covid absences has been payable from day one of absence throughout the pandemic. This will stay in place for the next month, before returning to the pre-pandemic allowance from day four of illness. Whilst this will reduce the amount of SSP to be paid to eligible employees and standardise the payment of SSP, an impending removal of the SSP Rebate Scheme for smaller employers will mean that all employers will, once again, have to foot their entire SSP bill.”

Employer reaction

The announcement came as a survey shows less than half of business leaders are planning to keep staff with Covid at home and away from the workplace, according to a survey by HR software provide CIPHR.

Its poll of 250 business owners, CEOs and senior managers found just 48% are planning to keep staff with Covid at home and away from the workplace while 21% are still unsure how they’ll deal with the imminent easing of self-isolation restrictions for positive or asymptomatic people.

Around a third (31%) of employers openly admit that, once the legal duty to self-isolate is removed, they won’t be expecting their workers to do so. One in seven – around 15% of these – claim that they can’t afford to continue keeping their staff at home.

According to the findings, employers with a predominantly desk-based workforce are more likely to keep their self-isolation policies in place, compared to their non-desk counterparts (58% compared to 37% say they will continue to require staff who test positive for Covid-19 to self-isolate at home).

Claire Williams, chief people officer at CIPHR, says: “It’s really interesting to see the different stance employers are taking on this one, and there are clearly several factors to consider – specifically the working environment and the level of risk that it presents to other employees, customers, patients, children, and so on.

“In environments that are purely office-based, where a large proportion of employees will have been vaccinated, employers may take the view that employees should use their common sense and treat it like any other flu or illness – don’t work if you are unwell, and be conscious of not coming into the office and spreading any bugs.

“However, other employers will, understandably, take a far more cautious approach. If, for example, you work in health or social care, it’s more likely that employers will want their employees to be testing negative and to self-isolate to minimise transmission. There is certainly no right or wrong in this scenario and it has to be assessed as per any other risk that a company is presented with.”

Williams added: “The difficulties come where employers enforce self-isolation in roles that are unable to be completed from home, and how this will impact people’s pay – especially when employees may be well enough to work. Careful consideration will need to be given to the legalities of policies and procedures that are introduced to cater for those situations, and any impact of new policies on the wider organisation that could affect areas such as staff turnover.”

Employers are seeking clearer guidance from the Government over how employers should treat health and safety issues linked to Covid. The Confederation of British Industry has urged the government for more guidance on sick pay and employer liability in coronavirus cases “to avoid the risk of a legal vacuum.” Education unions have also warned of the potential for chaos in schools in the absence of clear guidance while childcare providers are worried about workers’ safety, given under fives are the last unvaccinated group.

Neil Leitch from the Early Years Alliance said: “With under-fives now the only group not eligible for vaccinations and the early years remaining a particularly close-contact environment, it is vital that the government ensures that those working in the early years sector are protected as the changes announced today come into effect. This means ensuring that providers are actively supported to apply and enforce their own Covid-19 policies, based on their own professional judgement and risk assessments, and to take the steps they feel are needed to keep themselves and the children and families they support as safe as possible.”

 



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