Following the government’s recent announcement, Covid self-isolation rules in England came to an end on Thursday 24 February. This means that if you are infected with Covid, you are legally permitted to continue as normal, although official public health advice remains that anyone who tests positive should stay at home for five days
What does this mean for employers?
It will no longer be a criminal offence for an individual to attend the workplace if they have tested positive for Covid although employees are advised not to, to continue to prevent the spread of the virus. Employers are advised to continue following the government’s working safely guidance which includes guidance on risk assessments, reducing contact, ventilation, who should work, tests and vaccinations etc. This will only be in place until 1 April, after which the government will replace it with new guidance.
With the end of Covid restrictions, the responsibility for mandating policies and procedures is likely going to fall with the employer. Whilst adopting rules will be at the discretion of the employer, employers need to be aware of the effects any policies and procedures will have on their workforce. The government are pushing for England to reach a point where we live with Covid and employers should, to some extent, embrace this.
Employers need to understand that they do still have duties to their employees, ensuring that their health and safety is cared for. Therefore, employers may consider encouraging employees to regularly test, stay at home if they have Covid symptoms or a positive test, and to wash hands regularly to prevent harm and risk to employees and any customers / clients that visit the company premises. Extra care and thought should be considered for employees in the vulnerable category.
End of free testing
The government have also announced that free testing is due to end on 1 April and as such this is likely to have a huge impact on individuals testing before they come to work. Employers will need to decide whether they consider purchasing test kits for employees to encourage testing to occur or whether they leave this with their employees to decide and risk infections in the office. We do not know what the costs of tests are going to be and their accessibility however, employers should be mindful of this.
Impact on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)
The current SSP arrangements in relation to Covid absences will come to an end on 24 March 2022, allowing employers to submit any claims of absence or to amend pre-existing claims for absence periods up to 17 March. From 17 March employers will no longer be able to claim back any SSP that occur after this time. This will mean that SSP rules will return to what they were pre-pandemic which will automatically remove employee rights to seek SSP from day one due to self-isolation or where people are unwell with Covid. Instead, employers will pay SSP from the fourth qualifying day of sickness.
Employers will need to be aware that some employees will feel that the reversion of rules to pre-pandemic state will be a welcome change whereas for others it will be concerning, especially for vulnerable employees. Employers will need to think about their next steps in terms of policy and guidance. Key questions and considerations include:
• As there is a duty to protect the health and safety of employees, how will employers handle employees who test positive, will they be encouraged to stay at home, will they be separated from those who test negative in the office?
• Will employers put a policy of testing in place, if so, who will pay for the tests?
• How with vulnerable employees be treated or those who care for vulnerable people? Employers will need to ensure that any policy is not discriminatory towards these individuals.
• Employers will need to consider conflict that may arise between employees who have differing opinions on attending the office when infected. Training, support from HR and strong, consistent policies will assist in reducing this however, employers do need to be aware that this is likely.
• Can hybrid and flexible working continue? Are there the resources and facilities in place to allow this?
• Employers will need to carry out a risk assessment if they have not done one recently, especially considering the update to government guidance.
With the Covid restrictions being eased, employers will be responsible for the policies and decisions made. Employers need to be aware of the effects this will have and should prepare accordingly.