Targeted changes could reduce workplace spread of Covid-19, report argues

Economists warn against an ‘abrupt’ lifting of lockdown and call for employers to rethink their workforce planning practices

Targeted changes could reduce workplace spread of Covid-19, report argues

Targeted changes to the workplace and an increase in statutory sick pay (SSP) could reduce the spread of coronavirus in the workplace, economists have said.

In its new report, Economic aspects of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK, the Royal Society called on employers to introduce rotation schemes – where the workforce is divided into groups which attend work at different times – or split shifts, which have been shown to have an “exponential impact” on infection rates.

The authors also warned against an “abrupt and premature lifting of lockdown”, and said the UK needed policies that were sensitive to both possibility of a second peak in the virus and a double dip recession.

The report also called for subsidised workplace test and trace systems, which it argued could help identify and control workplace outbreaks quickly, “particularly in key sectors and those occupations in which ‘high contact’ is a feature”.

Professor Sir Tim Besley, school professor of economics and political science at the London School of Economics (LSE) and one of the report’s authors, said that targeted policies sensitive to the spread of the disease are needed in businesses.

“While physical distancing measures negatively impact certain businesses, there are adaptations we can make to our ways of doing business,” said Besley, adding that taking the right measures to protect health such as using ‘test, trace and isolate’ and a rise in SSP will “open up many more doors for businesses that can keep people working and assist in containing the spread of the disease”.

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Commenting on the report, Ben Willmott, head of public policy at CIPD, said there needed to be further support for the hardest hit sectors, such as hospitality, leisure and tourism, once the furlough scheme comes to an end in October.

Willmott added there was “real merit” in exploring a short-time working allowance, similar to Germany’s scheme, in which the government subsidises workers who have had their hours reduced rather than been made redundant. “Such a scheme would provide some wage subsidy to allow employers to do that, and in many ways it goes with the grain of how many employers responded in the last recession who protected jobs by using workforce flexibility,” he said.

The Royal Society report also called on the government to extend SSP when the furlough scheme comes to an end in October, arguing that current rates act as a “financial disincentive to self-isolate”, and that half of workers continue to work while experiencing mild coronavirus symptoms. This in turn makes it difficult to control the transmission of the virus and potentially renders ‘test, trace and isolate’ schemes redundant.

Willmott said that although reforms to SSP would be beneficial in the long term, specific action and compensation in relation to the test and trace system should be implemented in the short term: “The government should compensate employers for continuing to pay staff their normal wages if they are asked to self-isolate because SSP is not sufficient for many people even if they do qualify, and many don’t.”

“There needs to be a compensation scheme to ensure that anyone who is asked to self-isolate through the official system is not disadvantaged for doing the right thing.”

However, Sarah Hamilton-Gill, managing director of GlobusHR Consulting, warned about the cost implication that extending SSP would have on the UK’s private sector businesses. 

Although she acknowledged that SSP “doesn’t even remotely cover a normal salary”, Hamilton-Gill said that “now is not the time for a business to be offering company sick pay. The rise in SSP would be so significant it would cost us dearly in future tax rises as the government simply cannot afford it.”