What does the ‘Living with Covid’ plan mean for employers?

Rena Magdani outlines key considerations for businesses in light of the government’s roadmap for the next stage of the pandemic

The government’s ‘Living with Covid-19’ plan is aimed at enabling the country to manage Covid-19 like any other respiratory illness, while retaining the ability to respond if a new, more dangerous variant emerges. After two years of living with restrictions and adapting to the evolving Covid climate, employers seeking to deal with the virus going forward need to consider the right approach and policy for their business. Here are our five key considerations for employers:

Health and safety

The end of the legal obligation to self-isolate does not prevent employers from having their own rules on workplace attendance. Employers still have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of their workforce. With the government’s stated intention for businesses ‘to take responsibility for implementing mitigations that are appropriate for their circumstances’, organisations need to decide what their approach to self-isolation will be. Employers will need to make clear decisions around workplace attendance and importantly communicate this clearly and as early as possible to staff, and in particular managers. Typically, this would be via a policy which may, for example, state that individuals who test positive and/or who are displaying Covid symptoms are required to work from home for a period of time. Employers should also be prepared for questions from employees who elect to self-isolate, in particular around sick pay entitlements. 

Protecting vulnerable colleagues

Employee concerns and the dangers of Covid must still be considered within the context of any personal vulnerabilities; measures that may be sufficient to reduce the danger for most employees may not be adequate for others. For employers, this will continue to involve consideration of individual risks in relation to clinically vulnerable staff or employees who live with clinically vulnerable people, particularly if Covid-positive employees attend work. In order to protect staff, employers may also choose to provide staff with testing kits supplied by the organisation after the end of free government tests, or to encourage hybrid working for those who may require this. 

Mental health

It’s important to remember that an employer’s duties regarding health and safety require employers to consider employee mental wellbeing. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on mental health, with employees perhaps suffering from ongoing stress, anxiety, depression or other health concerns. Just because the government has chosen to remove all remaining restrictions, will not necessarily mean that your employees will be able to adapt their personal approach and apprehensions about Covid so quickly and therefore may need some time to adjust. It is important that employers continue to acknowledge and respond to employee mental health concerns and keep an open dialogue with staff about wellbeing and safety. Employers should be mindful that certain mental impairments could constitute a disability under the Equality Act 2010 and will trigger a duty to make reasonable adjustments to an employee’s duties or to the workplace to alleviate any disadvantage. Managers should also be trained to spot signs and support employee wellbeing, particularly if organisations are moving towards a hybrid working model. 

Recording vaccination data

Employers that have previously recorded vaccination or other health data and provided the reasons for doing so in an employee privacy notice will need to review their reasons for recording this data. With the changing government approach, employers will need to consider whether they need or want to continue to capture this health data and whether it is still necessary or proportionate to do so.

Capture the gains and remember this isn’t necessarily the end

Since the onset of the pandemic many people’s working lives have moved to remote ways of carrying out their role. Employers should be clear about the positives of these changes, including improved efficiency, flexibility, and wellbeing, while aiming to harness these going forward. There has also been an increase in formal flexible working requests from employees and appropriate policies and procedures should be followed to deal with these requests in accordance with the statutory regime. Despite the changes, organisations should ultimately maintain their contingency capabilities to deal with a range of scenarios in order to best prepare for the future of ‘Living with Covid’.

Rena Magdani is a partner and national head of employment, pensions and immigration at Freeths