What does HR need to know about the new Covid variant?

Experts say firms need to think ahead and not wait for the government before bringing in extra safety measures, as several cases of the Omicron variant are identified in the UK

Experts have been calling on businesses to take preventative measures as more confirmed cases of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 appear across the UK.

In what to many feels like a rerun of last winter, the prime minister announced on Saturday (27 November) that coronavirus restrictions would be tightened just weeks before Christmas – albeit a much lighter touch than before.

From Tuesday, face coverings will be mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England, however hospitality will be exempt from these changes and no businesses are being asked to close.

Boris Johnson also announced tighter travel restrictions, including the return of PCR testing for everyone who comes into the UK on day two after their arrival; the reintroduction of mandatory self-isolation for all Omicron contacts; and a potential extension of booster jabs.

During a press conference on the new variant, first reported from South Africa on Wednesday (24 November), Johnson said that these measures were "temporary and precautionary" and would be reassessed after three weeks.

The new mask-wearing requirements brings England in line with measures already in force in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where masks are universally required on public transport. (The rules on masks in other public spaces vary between the devolved countries.)

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However, while the measures will have a minimal effect on businesses, experts have been calling for firms to plan ahead.

“Responsible employers should not be waiting for the government,” said Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, who tweeted that, where roles allow it, companies should encourage as much home working as possible

“Support people to travel outside of peak hours with time flexibility, and you really don’t need that Christmas party,” she added, highlighting that if things are fine in a few weeks, measures can be rolled back. 

Dale also suggested that in-person training and face-to-face meetings should be moved back online.

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), agreed with Dale that firms should not wait for government action, adding that they should regularly review their risk assessment and monitor their Covid arrangements.

“If cases of the Omicron variant and others do rise significantly, we could be in for a difficult few months, but employers and employees can all play their part by implementing and following working safety guidelines,” she explained. 

Gavin Scarr-Hall, head of health and safety at Peninsula, told People Management firms should consider mask wearing, one way systems and regular testing – including requiring negative tests or vaccination status before attending a Christmas party.

“For now, the government has said it is not moving to plan B, so it is up to each employer to decide what will work best for them,” Scarr-Hall added, highlighting that having plans and communicating them clearly now will reduce any fears among employees, increase motivation and reduce risk of grievances or tribunal claims. 

However, Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, said that the new self-isolation rules could create difficulties for businesses. “In too many cases, those suspected of having the new variant will not be identified by a PCR test,” he said, explaining that this will cause “significant uncertainty” for employers given the different rules on self-isolation for those who come into contact with the Omicron variant.

He warned that employers may have to wait several days after the detection of an infection before it is known whether a Covid sufferer has the Delta variant, where isolation of contacts is not compulsory for those who are vaccinated but PCR testing is required, or Omicron, where all contacts must self-isolate for 10 days.

At the very least, Lewis said that firms must follow the government guidance on working safely and watch for updates, which will “inevitably be made in the light of Omicron”.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, also added that managers who have staff abroad impacted by the change in rules should be assessing whether or not they can temporarily work from home. 

“This allows them to maintain their normal salary and means the company faces minimal disruption to operations,” she explained, advising that, if home working isn’t feasible, employers can instead look at offering alternative positions, such as agreeing a period of annual leave or time off in lieu.

However, she did warn that employees are not entitled to statutory sick pay for periods of quarantine, unless there is a contractual provision for this.

Another key approach for firms is directing employees to NHS guidance. Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, recommended employers continue to remind their people about the importance of getting the vaccine and booster jab where it's applicable. 

“In the meantime, employers should ensure their workplaces have Covid-safe protocols in place like social distancing, good ventilation and hand sanitising stations,” she added.