Last week, the Prime Minister announced that the measures it had taken to protect the public during the rapid spread of the Omicron variant would end at midnight on 26 January 2022 in England.
The government has made a lot of announcements about COVID-19 over the last couple of years and is usually keen to reassure us that whatever measure they are introducing or removing is "guided by the science". Not this time. This is a political decision and somewhat of a gamble. Although Omicron has passed it's peak, around 100,000 people are becoming infected each day (that's around 1 in 20). Most appear to experience mild symptoms, but there are still around 340 people dying within 28 days of testing positive. And long-COVID is an emerging problem that hasn't really been addressed by the government.
So, the legal rules which required people to wear face coverings in most indoor settings and on public transport and in respect of mandatory COVID-19 certificates have gone. They've been replaced with guidance which the public are at liberty to ignore.
Where does that leave employers?
Working from home guidance
The advice to work from home if you can changed on 19 January and the government is now encouraging staff to "have conversations with their employers about returning to work".
The decision about how and where your staff work is a matter for you and, if you want your staff to return en-masse to their workplace, you'll need to make your expectations clear and explain what steps you are taking to keep them safe.
There may come a point when we can genuinely "live with Covid" without restrictions - but we are no-where near there yet and you should remain cautious. As a minimum you should be following the working safely during coronavirus guidance relevant to your sector and making sure that your workplace is as safe as it can be. That may mean continuing to maintain social distancing, reducing the numbers of people who can be present at one time and asking staff to continue to wear face coverings in order to protect themselves and others. You'll also need to conduct individual risk assessments for members of staff who remain clinically vulnerable if they become infected and reduce the risk to them to its lowest possible level. In some cases that may mean allowing them to continue to work from home whilst the infection rate remains high.
Many employers have already adopted hybrid and flexible working models which allow staff to work from home some of the time. If you haven't introduced these sorts of policies you may see an increase in the numbers of people making applications for flexible working so they can continue to work from home either for all or some of their working hours. We explained how to respond to these requests here.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must continue to self-isolate for 10 days unless they test negative on days five and six. You can read more about how the new rules work here. Plus, anyone who isn't fully vaccinated will have to continue to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with someone with the virus (unless they are medically exempt).
However the government had indicated that it intends to remove these legal requirements altogether on or before 24 March 2022* as part of its strategy to live with the virus. COVID-19 will be treated in the same way as seasonal flu and people will be able to go out and about if they are well enough!
* The government has recently announced that it expects to move this date forward to 24 February. It will be providing an update on 21 February.
Employers must continue to pay SSP to any member of staff who is eligible to receive it if they self-isolating either because they have the virus or have been in contact with someone with it.
The temporary rules which allowed workers to self-certify illness for up to 28 days ended yesterday. Anyone who phones in sick from today will only be able to self-certify for the usual seven days.
The government has also announced a new change to the testing rules for people travelling to the UK. From Friday 11 February, anyone returning to the UK who is fully vaccinated (or medically exempt) won't have to take any COVID tests on arrival. However, those people who aren't vaccinated will have to obtain a negative test two days before they travel back to the UK and, within 48 hours of returning home, take a pre-arranged (and privately funded) PCR test. They don't have to quarantine and only need to self-isolate if they test positive. This will reduce the need for employers to find out details of their employee's travel plans over the half-term (and their vaccination status) which we discussed here.
Our Coronavirus updates
We're working hard to keep you up to date with legal developments around Coronavirus. We've set up a portal which includes lots of helpful articles and advice to help you.
If you have a query, that we haven't answered, please contact us.