Employees shielding from coronavirus to return to work in August

Experts say businesses must demonstrate ‘paramount importance’ of health and safety to alleviate staff anxiety

Employers should show employees that their health and safety is of “paramount importance”, experts have warned, as those who have been shielding are set to return to work from 1 August.

Health secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) said the shielding scheme – designed to protect those at the highest risk from coronavirus – would begin to wind down from next month, with shielders able to leave their homes to socialise in groups of up to six people from July.

At the end of July, food and support packages available to those who have been unable to leave home during lockdown will stop, and employers will no longer be able to claim statutory sick pay for staff members who are shielding.

More than two million people are currently in the shielding group, and have been staying inside their homes to limit the risks posed to them by coronavirus. Yesterday, Hancock said it was “critical” that employers worked with the government and their staff to ensure employees could work in a “Covid-secure environment”.

Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said at yesterday’s daily government briefing that while falling infection rates meant it would be safe to send more vulnerable people back to work sooner, an extended period of transition had been put in to allow people to adjust.

“I think it’s a combination both of having employers that are prepared to share the changes that they’ve made in their environment and to reassure [workers] that they are Covid safe, and equally time for individuals to be able to get used to the idea,” she said.

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Some charities have voiced concerns about plans to lift the shielding scheme, with Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, suggesting the “blanket approach” to sending vulnerable people back to work would “add anxiety in many cases”. 

Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK, also questioned the broad approach, saying both employers and older workers needed “much more detailed guidance” about managing a return to work after shielding.

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said communication was crucial for employers to ensure any staff who had been shielding felt safe returning to work.

“Those who have been shielding may return to work from 1 August 2020 as long as the workplace is ‘Covid secure’, and it will be for employers to demonstrate that this is the case,” he said. “It is therefore vital that employers follow the available guidance on social distancing and physical adjustments to the workplace, but it will be as crucial to communicate those changes to those who have been shielding to reassure them that the workplace is as risk free as possible.”

Holcroft warned against employers attempting to compel anyone to come to work. “Employees are protected in law for refusing to come to work where they have a reasonable belief that it poses a serious and imminent threat to their health,” he said, and anyone refusing to come back to work in August needed to be managed appropriately. 

“This means considering their individual position, and making reasonable adjustments for employees who have a disability… Employers are strongly advised to show employees that their health and safety is of paramount importance,” he said.

Andrew Crudge, employment associate at Trethowans, said there were also question marks over whether an employee refusing to return to work would still be entitled to pay. “If you’re in a situation where the employer has carried out a risk assessment and put in place changes to enable those individuals to return safely, and if the individuals still refuse to return to work, a reasonable position you're likely to get into is that the employer [could offer] unpaid leave,” he said. 

However, he added that if the employee in question was on furlough, they could remain on furlough and be paid under the job retention scheme until any safety issues were resolved.