What does the new Living with Covid-19 plan mean for employers and HR?

The guidance is out, and there was a lengthy press conference on 21 February, but as the new day dawns, employers, employees and HR and left wondering what the next steps mean for them.

Key dates:

24 February

  • The big one – no legal requirement to isolate after a positive test. Though we are advised to stay home. Sector specific guidance will follow for those working with vulnerable people
  • Contact tracing ends; no requirements for contacts to test daily and no need for unvaccinated contacts to isolate

24 March

  • SSP and ESA covid-related support ends. This means that SSP only becomes payable after 3 days’ sickness absence; no longer from day 1 where the absence is covid-related

1 April

  • The Working Safely guidance will be replaced with new public health guidance. The sector specific guidance on the gov.uk website currently all says it will be updated soon
  • Employers are told that they should still consider the needs of employees whose immune system places them at greater risk – guidance will follow after further consultation
  • The requirement to explicitly consider covid-19 in employer health and safety risk assessments will be removed
  • Unlimited free testing ends; there will be some symptomatic testing for certain sectors
  • Use of the Covid Pass will no longer be recommended
  • Guidance will follow setting out what steps people who have covid should take when coming to contact with vulnerable people

So, what does it all mean?

It is important to remember that this applies to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have their own rules, which employers will need to stay on top of.

For most people in England, it’s good news that we are moving back to ‘normal’, but these changes will worry many, and employers need to balance the health and happiness of their workforce with the need to keep their businesses running.

It was clear watching the press conference yesterday that there are many unanswered questions, lots of concern and a good few contradictions in the advice so far.

For example – the suggestion that we should stay at home more when we are ill to avoid spreading any illness is a sensible one, but the fact that SSP doesn’t kick in until day 4 of absence is likely to force low paid workers who cannot work from home back into their workplaces, increasing the spread.

How does that then sit with the need for employers to be mindful to protect their vulnerable employees? Should employers consider a level of company sick pay to fill this gap, creating a challenge for small businesses?

And how will you even know who has covid if there are no tests?! On the one hand, that doesn’t seem to matter anymore, yet we still need to take care to protect those who are vulnerable.

How should employers support vulnerable workers who are naturally anxious about the relaxation of isolation and the removal of testing? Especially where they cannot or prefer not to work from home.

How do we balance GDPR requirements about health conditions with the need to protect employees from disability discrimination?

Think constructively and communicate

The best answers at the moment are to keep an open mind to all options and to communicate – don’t be afraid of either.

  • Look at the new guidance (paragraphs 58-64 are particularly relevant for employers) and see what you can do. Perhaps you can offer company sick pay from day 1 for a while for those who have covid-19 and are unfit to work? That might reduce the spread in your workplace and reduce workplace anxiety too.
  • Maybe you can allow vulnerable workers to work from home more than others? If they want to, of course.
  • Maybe social distancing can be maintained, or you might be able to keep certain areas reserved for those who would prefer to socially distance?
  • Even though the H&S requirement to specifically consider covid-19 will be removed, you can still consider this as a specific risk and see what steps you can take.
  • Keep up the good hygiene, cleaning and ventilation
  • Do you offer an Employee Assistance Programme or have mental health first aiders? If so, share the details again. If not, could you put support in place?

Involve your employees in your thoughts and plans. They will no doubt have helpful ideas to share, and are most likely to be engaged if they have been involved in the planning. Even where you cannot offer something which is suggested, the fact that you will have considered it and explained the reasons why will often go along way to bringing employees with you.

Be mindful of the risks associated with constructive unfair dismissal by not forcing unreasonable changes, and take care not to discriminate – the obvious likely risks here are disability discrimination by treating someone who is vulnerable differently, and discrimination on grounds of pregnancy where pregnant workers may have particular risks or concerns.

This will be another period of change which is something we have all become used to in recent years and no doubt workplaces can manage by pulling together,

If you have specific concerns, or simply want to sense-check your plans, please do call one of the team, we would be delighted to help you to navigate this.