On 21 February 2022, the government launched its “Living with Covid” strategy. As a result, many of the Covid measures in England have or will soon change significantly.
Despite this downgrade in protocols, difficult questions for employers on a range of employment law issues remain. Many decisions previously dictated by law and guidance are now in the hands of employers and individual employees to make.
What steps must we take to manage the ongoing risks of Covid-19 in the workplace?
Despite deregulation, Covid infection levels remain relatively high, and infection in the workplace remains a risk, sometimes making it difficult to manage absences and presence in the workplace. All employers have statutory duties to provide a safe place of work and general legal duties of care towards anyone who may be accessing or using their place of business. Employers must take the following steps:
Carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments to identify the risks. Risk assessments should also look at different groups of workers (e.g. pregnant workers), for whom you may need to take extra health and safety measures.
Implement measures to minimise those risks. You must take all reasonably practicable steps to minimise the risks. This is not the same as having to eliminate the risks altogether.
This obligation also extends to those who are working from home.
To successfully manage covid in the workplace, we recommend that Employers adhere to the following points:
COVID-19 is still with us, and employees may continue to have concerns. Reassure and keep them well informed about your organisation’s health and wellbeing policies and contingency plans.
Update your absence policy so that staff are fully aware of conditions that apply for any time off, self-isolation, and sick pay arrangements.
Make sure everyone, including managers, understand which sick pay and leave policies apply and if these are changing. Actively communicate this advice to employees.
Ensure that line managers are regularly informed about the organisation’s contingency and return-to-work plans and how to discuss the situation with any concerned employees.
Employers need to be aware that some people who contract COVID-19 may experience ongoing long-term symptoms, broadly known as ‘Long COVID’, even if they initially had a mild illness. More research is needed to understand the illness, but organisations need to provide support for any employees experiencing long-term health impacts, including educating line managers about the condition, adjustments to working hours, phased return to work, and access to occupational health and/or counselling services if needed.
Promote the resources you have available to support people’s health and wellbeing generally, including those through an employee assistance programme. If large numbers of people are still working from home where this is possible, provide ongoing support and communications. Some could start to feel socially isolated after such a long period based at home. Supporting employees’ mental wellbeing is crucial whether or not people are attending a place of work or continuing to work from home indefinitely.