Further to the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, the government has introduced precautionary measures to slow the spread in the UK until more can be understood about the potential impact.
Although there is much still to be learned about the variant, it is understood that it spreads ‘very rapidly’ and can be spread between those who have been double vaccinated. It is also an extensive mutation of other forms of the virus and so there is potential that the protection afforded by vaccination may be reduced.
Several things have changed in light of the Omicron variant, and it is possible that we will see further developments. At the moment, following recent announcements and as of 10 December, many employers will be affected by the following measures:
– Face coverings must be worn by all staff (unless they qualify for an exemption):
- With effect from 30 November 2021, face coverings are again a legal requirement in shops and on public transport.
- With effect from 29 November, all staff working in education settings that are secondary schools and higher must wear face coverings in communal areas.
- With effect from 10 December, face coverings are compulsory in most indoor public venues, although there are exemptions for those venues where it is not practical to do so, such as when eating within a hospitality venue.
– Work from home if you can: From 13 December, those employees that can work from home, should do so.
– NHS COVID-19 Pass: Subject to a vote in parliament w/c 13 December, the NHS COVID-19 that is on the NHS app will become mandatory for entry into nightclubs and settings where there are large crowds.
– Red list for international travel: With effect from 4am on 28th November, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola were added to the red travel list, which currently also includes South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. This red list is subject to change at any time, and can be accessed via the government website.
– PCR tests and international travel: With effect from 7 December, anyone entering the UK from abroad will be required to take a PCR or LFD COVID-19 test before travelling to England. Once in England, fully vaccinated people must self-isolate and take a PCR test before the end of day 2 of having arrived in England and only leave self-isolation if their PCR test is negative. Lateral flow tests are not accepted as an alternative. Arrivals into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will have their own rules.
– Self-isolation for contacts of Omicron: Anyone who is a contact of a person who has tested positive with a suspected case of the Omicron is required to self-isolate for ten days. This includes those who are fully vaccinated. For cases of COVID-19 not related to the omicron variant, employees who have been fully vaccinated will still be able to attend work.
Vaccinations and booster jabs
The booster vaccination programme is being fast tracked for all those eligible, which now includes those aged between 40 to 49 to book their jab. The timescales waiting for the jab from having had the second dose of the vaccination is also reduced from 6 months to just 3.
What do employers need to do?
Health and safety
It is possible that risk assessments may have become several months out of date and coronavirus safety measures may have become more lax in the work environment since things have begun to return to normal.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are required to take all reasonably practicable steps to reduce workplace risks to their lowest level and employees have a legal duty to co-operate as is reasonably necessary. As we are aware of a new variant which can spread more rapidly, all employers should consider reviewing their health and safety obligations, risk assessments and practices in respect of the variant and implementing (or re-introducing) measures as may be necessary to reduce risk of spreading the virus.
This is also an important time to communicate reminders to staff (as well as third parties and visitors) of your expectations and the importance of being vigilant with your safety measures during this time.
Further to their health and safety practices, employers who can on a practical level support working from home, should do so. For those employees that are not able to work from home, then the risk assessment must look at the risks and identify appropriate measures that support social distancing and protection for employees to reduce workplace risks to their lowest level.
All those who operate in the required settings will need to immediately require all staff to wear face coverings unless they are exempt. It is reasonable to provide appropriate coverings to encourage compliance with your legal obligation.
International travel for business purposes
Employers may need to reconsider and factor in the impact of sending employees to work internationally, particularly with regards to the safety and necessity of sending someone to a red country, the re-entry requirements of any international travel and the timescales and costs involved with PCR testing and isolation upon their return. (Some niche roles have been given specific exemption from re-entry requirements, however at the time of writing it has not been confirmed whether they will continue to be exempt from the new rules.)
Employees going on holiday abroad
It is the personal choice of an employee as to whether they travel internationally for holiday. However, it can become a workplace matter should anything arising from the holiday directly impact on their employment – such as their ability to return to work afterwards. However, this is often not a problem where an employee is able to work from home during a period of self-isolation.
Contacts of Omicron
At the time of writing the number of known Omicron cases estimate to be doubling every two to three days and it is expected to rise – hence the re-introduction of measures. Employers will need to be aware that where previously an individual who was a double vaccinated contact of someone with a positive COVID-19 test result did not have to isolate, someone who is a contact of Omicron will have to isolate for 10 days. Therefore, these individuals must be allowed to stay away from the workplace and may only continue to work if they can do so from home.
Remember that the government still allows employers (if eligible) to claim back up to two weeks of SSP when the employee’s absence is due to the coronavirus.
As part of the national effort, employers are strongly advised to encourage staff to receive the vaccination and the booster vaccination. This may include direction to the NHS and government led advice on the benefits and communicating the ways in which the employer supports employees to do this. For example: allowing paid time off – including reasonable travel time, organising sufficient cover for the time off required, etc.
Employers may consider whether they have made it clear that they support and will facilitate employees to be able to be vaccinated and to receive the booster and how they this would work in practice, so they are not inhibited by concerns such as asking for time off.
If you would like any further information on how HR Solutions can support your business, please call us on 0844 324 5840 or contact us.