Charities urge employers not to return shielding staff to work

Experts say forcing vulnerable employees back to the office would be ‘heartless and reckless’ as government protections come to an end

Shielding workers could find themselves in an “impossible position” from next week, with some employers potentially demanding vulnerable staff return to work before it is safe to do so, an open letter to the chancellor has warned.

With the scheme to protect shielding individuals coming to an end, 15 charities have written to Rishi Sunak warning that workers could be forced to choose between their health and jobs if asked to return. The group, including Age UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Diabetes UK, warned that vulnerable employees may be placed at risk of redundancy and called on the government to protect these jobs.

“Our concern is that, especially as [the] furlough arrangements start to unwind and the shielding scheme is paused from next week, some of these workers will find themselves in an impossible position,” the letter stated.

In line with government guidance, shielding will be paused from today (31 July) in Scotland, tomorrow (1 August) in England, and 16 August in Wales. 

More than two million people deemed ‘extremely vulnerable’ to Covid-19 are shielding in England alone, according to the group of charities. About 595,000 of those people usually work. 

Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said the government should introduce a new support scheme for clinically vulnerable people unable to return to a safe work environment.

The call came as prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed, in an announcement detailing measures on local lockdowns, that its guidance on returning staff to work and the pause on national shielding remained unchanged. He added that medical experts would explain this decision in further detail later on today (31 July). 

Meanwhile, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has warned employers not to make “reckless demands” of shielding employees and those with caring responsibilities by asking them to return to the workplace earlier than necessary. It advised employers to make full use of the job retention scheme up until its current end point of October this year. 

General secretary Frances O’Grady said that it would be “heartless and reckless” for employers to demand the immediate return of shielding workers while the virus still remained a threat. She called on the government to “make clear to employers that they cannot give shielding workers unreasonable ultimatums to return to workplaces”.

The TUC called on employers to publish full risk assessments for each workplace and conduct individual risk assessments for shielding workers and those caring for a shielding household member. It also called on the government to extend the job retention scheme beyond October for some people, including workers whose GP or clinician had advised they should continue shielding; those affected by local lockdowns; carers; and businesses in the hardest hit sectors.

Gary Cookson, director of EPIC HR, advised that in the “unlikely instance” where work can only be done face to face, firms should consider alternative options. “Employers should consider temporary redeployment to alternative duties if no compromise can be reached, and things like sabbaticals and various other forms of paid and unpaid leave as other options,” said Cookson. 

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said despite government guidance stating that shielding employees could now return to work, employers should not expect them to turn up on the first day after the scheme ends. The situation should be treated as any other lengthy absence, he said: “There needs to be some discussion beforehand about the individual circumstances which apply and whether a return to the workplace is the right thing to do.” 

He warned that employers had a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees under the Equality Act 2010, which could include a temporary change to their duties, and employers falling foul of this could face significant consequences. 

“Requiring an employee to return to an unsafe workplace could entitle them to resign and claim constructive dismissal. Placing a disabled employee at a detriment because of their disability, or something arising from their disability, is unlawful,” added Holcroft. 

Cookson added: “There is a difference between employers behaving in an ethically and morally sound way, and behaving in a legal way. Legally, employers can force staff back to work, but just because they can doesn’t mean they should.”

Liz Beck, MD and leadership coach at Aspiring HR, said ultimately the decision sat with the individual staff member. She added that employers – while they should explore other options first – were within their rights not to pay staff if unable to attend work: “The employee can come to work or choose to stay at home, however they may not get paid if the employer has met their obligations and needs to pay someone else temporarily to complete the work that is needed.

“This is clearly an undesirable position for both parties, so dialogue and flexibility for individual needs are key,” Beck added.

But England’s biggest businesses could defy the government’s push to get workers to return to the office in August, according to analysis by the Guardian. It revealed that many will stick to home working arrangements or delay a partial return until September at the earliest. 

The analysis suggested law firms, insurers, energy providers and tech firms were “reacting cautiously” to the government advice and predicted a potential shift in working culture, with Google and NatWest Group allowing workers to stay at home until 2021, for instance.