A third of employers plan to scrap ‘stay at home’ requirements for Covid-positive workers, poll finds

Employers warned to carefully consider the ‘legalities of policies’ as self-isolation rules in England end tomorrow

Nearly one in three businesses plan to scrap requirements for staff who test positive for coronavirus to stay at home, a poll of employers has found, as experts urge businesses to carefully consider the legality of policies going forward.

The survey of 250 business leaders, conducted last weekend before the prime minister confirmed self isolation rules were ending in England, found 31 per cent had already decided to scrap their self isolation policies for Covid-positive employees once the requirement was dropped.

The research, conducted by CIPHR, found that less than half (48 per cent) of businesses planned to continue requiring employees who test positive for the virus to work from home once the rules change, while 21 per cent admitted they were still unsure.

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The prime minister announced earlier this week that from tomorrow (24 February) individuals in England will no longer be legally required to self isolate after testing positive for coronavirus.

Individuals who test positive will, for now, still be advised to stay at home for at least five days, however from 1 April that guidance will also end.

The CIPHR survey found that employers with a predominantly desk-based workforce were more likely to continue with their self-isolation requirements when compared to employers with a home-based workforce (58 per cent and 37 per cent respectively).

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The poll also found that 15 per cent of employers polled said they could not afford to continue keeping staff at home.

Claire Williams, chief people officer at CIPHR, said businesses were likely to differ in how much discretion they give staff in deciding whether they are too unwell to come into work, noting that the risks will be different for all organisations.

But, she said, difficulties could emerge in situations where employers seek to force employees who can’t work remotely to self-isolate, particularly if the employee is well enough to work and where staying away from work could affect their pay.

“Careful consideration will need to be given to the legalities of policies and procedures that are introduced to cater for those situations, and any impact of new policies on the wider organisation that could affect areas such as staff turnover,” said Williams.

Paul Seath, employment partner at Bates Wells, cautioned that any employee who was “ready, willing and able to work” still needed to be paid if their employer prevented them from coming into work.

For firms wanting to maintain a self-isolation policy, asking employees who test positive to work from home was a reasonable solution where possible. However, Seath suggests that employees unable to work from home should be allowed to come into work with extra precautions, or be asked to “stay away on full pay”.

On a practical level however, this is a problem that was “likely to disappear” when free mass testing comes to an end on 1 April, Seath said, given that after that time employees are unlikely to be testing positive. He added that employers who wish to continue with testing after this point should provide the tests, arguing that it would not be reasonable to ask staff to pay for testing.

This was echoed by David Lorimer, director at Fieldfisher, who said employees would likely be “strongly resistant” to any policy requiring them to fund their own tests. Such an approach would lead to “non-adherence with policies and even legal challenges”, he said.

Employers looking to prevent outbreaks in the workplace could consider “minimum periods of working from home” for those who are symptomatic, Lorimer added, but stressed that this could be hard to police and would “likely cause significant disruption”.

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH, said now was “not the time to forget everything we have learnt to prevent, mitigate and manage Covid-19” whilst cases remain high. “Good risk management remains essential for protecting workers and others,” she said.