Nearly two years since they were first introduced, self-isolation requirements could finally be coming to an end. The current legal requirement for people who test positive for Covid to self-isolate is set to expire at the end of March, but yesterday (9 February) the prime minister told Parliament that if cases continued to fall, he could scrap the rule at the end of February instead.
“It is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive, a full month early,” Boris Johnson said, pledging to present his ‘strategy for living with Covid’ on the first day back after parliamentary recess on 21 February.
But what will this mean for businesses? Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said any new guidance that does come into force would likely shift the onus onto employers, requiring businesses to develop and implement their own policies about what happens when a member of staff tests positive.
Regardless of what happens, warned Willmott, employers still have a “fundamental duty of care” towards their employees.
“Some workers may still be anxious about the risk of Covid, and it will be down to businesses and line managers to consult with people and understand their individual concerns and agree what adjustments can be made where appropriate” he said.
However, some employers have welcomed the potential change. Laura Ibbotson, HR manager at Heras, told People Management that many employees at her organisation “want to get back to normal”.
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At Heras, masks will be optional, but temperature checks, social distancing, and mask-wearing policies will remain in place, but Ibbotson emphasised that the company would continue to follow government guidance so long as sickness levels “remain within ‘normal’ and there are no other new developments”.
Heather Catchpole, head of HR at Eset UK, told People Management that face coverings are already no longer mandatory at her workplace. But, she said: “In the interests of protecting colleagues, as well as keeping our business running smoothly, we will continue to ask employees to work from home if they have a positive test”.
This policy will also be adopted by charity Mental Health Concern, according to its chief people officer Sarah Dewar, who said that office-based colleagues who can work from home will be asked to do so if they test positive. However, she said they would continue to encourage employees to wear face coverings and practise social distancing in the office.
“As a provider of CQC-registered care services, we also await further clarity on the self-isolation requirements for those working in nursing and care roles and would expect the requirement to self-isolate to remain in order to protect the most vulnerable,” she added.
From a legal point of view, Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells, said that any potential new guidelines could present a “dilemma” for employers.
It is possible any new guidance “may well encourage people not to attend work if they have Covid, even if they don’t have to self-isolate”, he said. But, this would mean employers could still choose to allow asymptomatic employees to attend work. Some may even insist employees still come into the workplace if they are able to.
However, any decision by employers will still have to take into account “what other measures can be taken to keep the public and co-workers safe, what else the guidance says about attendance at work, the risk profile of the work environment and workforce and the employer’s stance to date”, Seath said.
Seath added that an employer would be required to pay in full any member of staff that is “ready, able and willing to work” if it is the employer that is preventing them from doing so.
David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law, also cautioned that that current statutory sick pay (SSP) arrangements for coronavirus-related absences may also expire at the end of this month, potentially meaning no more SSP for asymptomatic workers or workers who have been contacted, and an end to employees receiving SSP on day one of their illness.
If workers who test positive “feel fine”, employers should still consider their duty of care to all employees and encourage home working in this case, said Jepps, who also suggested other measures such as mask wearing and social distancing should continue to be implemented.
“The detail of Boris Johnson’s proposals and government guidance could prove to be crucial. In anticipation, employers should start to think very carefully about how they can move forward." he said.
Rita Trehan, founder of Dare Worldwide, said that managers should have “frank” conversations with employees and assuage concerns with clear policies. “Even where the law does not require it, they should offer practical rules on sanitisation and mask-wearing where this meets with the demands of staff,” she said.