If you had asked people in March 2020 whether we would still be battling the pandemic nearly two years later, most people would look at you in a state of shock; but here we are. At the time of writing, the number of cases in the UK of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, had reached over 45,000. The government has warned that this could reach one million by the end of the year. As such, further guidance has been introduced in an attempt to keep these numbers down, in short:
- Wearing of masks has been re-introduced in most indoor public places, at large venues and events, and on public transport unless exempt;
- Someone with Covid-19 need now only isolate for 7 days and provided they test negative under lateral flow test on day 6 and 7, they can come out of isolation, because it is considered that the Omicron variant produces less severe symptoms than the Delta variant, meaning fewer hospitalisations;
- The NHS Covid Pass is to be shown at nightclubs, some venues and large events or show that a negative test result has been obtained within the last 48 hours;
- Booster vaccines are now available for all eligible over 18 year olds; and;
- Employees in England should work from home if they can, the guidance states “office workers who can work from home should do so… anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go into work”.
What does this mean for employers?
Employers need to be aware of the effects that these rules will have on the workforce as a whole and also individual employees. The effects may be as follows:
- Increased and unexpected absences due to people becoming ill with Covid-19 and needing to isolate. Where this happens, those who are fit for work may need to take on work from those too ill to continue their role; encouraging employees to prioritise work so as to not become overwhelmed will assist in keeping stress under control. This will keep stress related absences to a minimum;
- Socialising in teams – although the government guidance does not prevent gatherings or events from taking place, many employees may feel nervous about attending events. Employers should use their own judgment to assess whether events should take place both this side of the New Year and afterwards;
- Safety in the office – employers should understand the role that Covid-19 plays in the workplace. Viruses spread easily in an office due to the amount of shared surfaces, smaller spaces, and high levels of interaction with colleagues and so employers need to carry out or re-assess an existing Covid-19 risk assessment. As part of the risk assessment, employers must:
- Identify what work activity or situations may cause transmission of the virus;
- Think who could be at risk (employees, visitors, contractors, delivery drivers etc);
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed;
- Think about the options that may limit transmission; and
- Assess how realistic these options are.
It is not just the wellbeing of employees in the workplace that employers need to be aware of. Occupational Health are being urged to be proactive in helping employers make the transition to the government’s ‘Plan B’ Covid-19 measures, such as the work from home measure. When working from home, according to a survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), 67% of people said that they felt less connected to their colleagues and so mental health support needs to be at the top of the priority list. Ways to support the wellbeing of your staff can include:
- Staying connected to employees and encouraging them to do the same with their colleagues; this can be through emails, welfare meetings or team calls;
- Encouraging employees to have a set routine, so that they are not pressured to overwork which could lead to stress;
- Carrying out a risk assessment of employees; for those who may be particularly isolated at home, vulnerable to loneliness or who have poor at home working environments. Allowing these employees to spend some time in the office may assist their wellbeing;
- Carrying out a risk assessment for home workers – this can be done through providing advice and guidance on how to manage a home working set up. According to the RSPH, 26% of people working from home reported that they are working from a sofa or a bedroom, and 48% of these people said that they had developed a musculoskeletal problem as a result. Employers could provide an allowance for staff if they need to purchase additional equipment which will assist working from home (e.g. a suitable chair); and
- Keeping alert – the most important thing that employers can do is keep alert and encourage employees to discuss any concerns they may have; catching and resolving issues early will mitigate the risk of anything more serious.
Companies should try to find alternative working arrangements if employees are concerned about the virus and usually attend work in-person, for example:
- The use of PPE around the office (such as mask wearing away from desks), social distancing, regular sanitising of shared surfaces and appliances, routine handwashing etc;
- Encouraging employees to get their vaccines or boosters with increased guidance, as well as allowing employees to take paid time off to attend their vaccination appointments; and;
- Realising that all employees will require different things depending on their own personal circumstances – it is up to the employer to notice these and practice flexibility to cater to the individual needs where possible and safe to do so.
Whilst the government has not implemented their ‘Plan B’ yet, there are speculations that it is only a matter of time before the UK follow in the footsteps of other countries. Being aware and prepared for change will minimise damage and disruption to companies.