Government’s Plan B for Covid: What does HR need to know?

People Management asks experts what businesses need to think about in anticipation of a potential change to measures

It’s been impossible to ignore the steady increase in the number of Covid cases in the UK. Since the majority of restrictions were lifted in July the number of daily infections has slowly risen, reaching more than 56,000 at some points this month – levels similar to the surge in infections seen last winter.

And while hospital admissions and Covid deaths are thankfully still low, something attributed largely to the successful vaccine rollout, as winter draws in there have been renewed concerns that more needs to be done to stop the spread and protect the NHS. Among them were a number of UK health experts, including the NHS Confederation and the British Medical Association, who called on the government to roll out its ‘Covid plan B’ to tackle the rise in England.

But what exactly is Plan B and what could the implications be for employers if it is implemented? People Management spoke to a number of experts to find out.

What is Plan B?

While the current strategy (Plan A) focuses on testing and vaccination to help prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed, Plan B would reintroduce measures designed to control transmission of the virus while minimising economic and social impacts. This would include mandatory vaccine-only Covid-status certification and face coverings in certain settings, communicating any increase to the level of risk to the public and potentially requests for people to once again work from home if they can, for a limited period. 

The plan would only apply to England as Scotland and Wales are currently employing measures such as working from home where possible or compulsory face coverings in some areas. 

Will Plan B happen?

“It is my view that we will see Plan B put into action within the next four weeks in order to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS,” said Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, citing the combination of warnings from senior doctors that operations are being cancelled due to staffing shortages. 

Warnings from scientists of a three-fold effect this winter – of Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus – was another reason to implement the plan, he explained. 

Ann Francke, CEO of Chartered Management Institute (CMI), also said there are strong calls for the government to introduce the plan soon. But, she added: “This is a fast moving scenario with too many changing variables to make predictions meaningful.

“If the past 12 months has taught us anything, it's how difficult it is to predict how our Covid situation will develop.”

Government spokespeople are steadfast that they are not considering introducing Plan B at the moment, said Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner. “However, they have made it clear that if it does happen, changes will likely take effect quickly.” 

What are the risks of Plan B for businesses?

Firms will likely have to return to remote working measures if Plan B is instigated. “It is likely many will have already done so at some point over the last 18 months, so [employers] should have a good idea on how best to do this,” added Holcroft.

This was echoed by Francke, who says many organisations now have systems in place to deal with changes to their working practices which are now routine. “Plan B shouldn't really prove too disruptive for them,” she said. 

But for firms that are not prepared for a return to remote working, Francke warned there is a risk they could lose staff to other employers. With the jobs market as competitive as it is, employees may have little patience if managers do not have a plan for working through a new lockdown. 

“Disarray will smack of poor management and could well leave employees disenfranchised and looking elsewhere, for an employer with better leadership,” she explained. 

How should employers prepare?

“If managers haven't already they should plan, plan, plan,” Francke said, advising managers to talk openly with their teams and get everyone onboard with a strategy.

Holcroft agrees that organisations should work in anticipation of Plan B happening, saying this will “reap long-term rewards'' for businesses. Part of this means ensuring employers have the contractual entitlement to enforce changes to working location. Where this is not the case, businesses will need to seek individual agreement to implement changes not expressly written into contracts. 

“For those who are unable to work from home, measures should be implemented to ensure their continual safety and compliance with government guidance, including wearing a face covering,” Holcroft said, adding it would be beneficial to update staff regularly to reduce employee hesitancy and push back.

In practical terms, looking after workers should be businesses’ priority, Ryan Exley, a content developer at Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said.

“Businesses in the UK shouldn’t just wait to see if the government implements Plan B. They should be regularly reviewing their Covid safety measures to ensure they continue to be effective and taking action to amend these where necessary,” he explained. 

To avoid transmission of the virus, he recommends employers make informed risk-based decisions for themselves through risk assessments. HR departments also need to work alongside occupational safety and health professionals as well as other departments including engineering and facilities management when creating their operating model, and be constantly engaging with feedback from employees themselves.