On 17 March 2021, the Government released new guidance for people in the category of clinically extremely vulnerable. It was announced that from 1 April 2021 they would no longer be advised to shield and could begin to reintegrate themselves back into society, both socially and economically. This comes off the back of the Government publishing a roadmap out of the national restrictions and making real progress with the vaccination program. In fact, over 30 million people have had at least one dose of the vaccine and this equates to more than 9 in 10 clinically extremely vulnerable people.
However, the Government are recommending that those at risk continue to take extra precautions for at least the foreseeable future, while the virus is still prevalent and until full immunity from the vaccine is attained. This advice is of course supplementary to the regulations that are in place for everyone during the pandemic.
Whilst this news has been greeted by most, the prospect of re-joining society for those who have been shielding on and off for the best part of a year now, is a daunting one, and in this article we aim to give you a summary of the advice that applies from 1 April 2021 and what it actually means for society going forward.
What the current rules say re Clinically Extremely Vulnerable:
- You should stay at home as much as possible.
- You are strongly advised to work from home. If you cannot work from home, then you should not attend work.
- Clinically extremely vulnerable children and young people should not attend school or other educational settings.
- You are advised to stay at home as much as possible and not to travel unless essential (for example, to attend health appointments).
- You are advised not to go to the shops or the pharmacy.
Summary of changes that apply from 1 April 2020:
- You can now leave the house for certain reasons, such as exercise. But you must keep the number of social interactions that you have low and try to reduce the amount of time you spend in settings where you are unable to maintain social distancing.
- Everyone is advised to continue to work from home where possible, but if you cannot work from home you should now attend your workplace. Your employer is required to take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace and should be able to explain to you the measures they have put in place to keep you safe at work.
- The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough) has been extended until 30 September 2021, as has the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). You may continue to be eligible throughout this period.
- From 1 April, you will no longer be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) based on being advised to shield.
- Clinically extremely vulnerable pupils and students should return to their school or other educational settings.
You can find the full guidance at www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19
Certainly, the most eye catching of the developments is that people who are shielding will soon be encouraged to return to the workplace, albeit with the proviso that they should continue to work from home where possible. Whilst many will be happy to reconnect with their work colleagues, this does create some uncertainty for those who are unable to work from home and do not yet feel comfortable returning to the workplace, especially with financial support being cut in some areas. This scenario would force an employer to make difficult decisions, for example, whether they challenge an employee or continue to keep them on payroll using the government furlough scheme. However, employers must tread carefully and be aware of the threat of employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal or potentially discrimination. It also presents practical issues for the employer in terms of maintaining and enhancing their workplace to be COVID-19 secure. This should already be common practice but employers will certainly feel the added responsibility and potentially liability, with the extremely vulnerable returning to the workplace. Those returning will also have to think about how they get to and from work with the government advising that they should avoid using public transport during peak hours.
The clinically extremely vulnerable will no longer be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from 1 April 2021 if their reasons for receiving the funds were due to shielding. Until now, it was possible to receive support purely because of being advised to shield, but the new changes means that a person will have to be sick or incapable of working to receive support. This development will certainly worry those who have been reliant on this financial support over the last year; however, the government furlough scheme and self-employment scheme remain in place until end of September, although the employee must still agree to be furloughed.
In conclusion, the extremely vulnerable will be relieved at this news and can soon join the rest of the population in following the easing of national restrictions from 29 March. Although it seems the process will still be a gradual one, with the government urging the vulnerable to take extra precautions including strict social distancing and low levels of social contact. Deputy Chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘With the prevalence of the virus in the community continuing to decrease, now is the right time for people to start thinking about easing up on these more rigid guidelines.’ However, this easing does create some uncertainty for those are not yet ready to reintegrate into society, particularly with financial support being cut in some areas and people being asked to go back to work.