Lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in England: implications for the workplace

The Prime Minister has today set out the Government’s plans for “living with COVID-19” in England which will see many restrictions dropped this week.  A Living with COVID-19 document has also been published which expands upon the announcement made by the Prime Minister.

What is changing?

The main changes announced today include the following –

From 24 February 2022 –

  • Removal of mandatory self-isolation for positive COVID cases, although advice to stay home will remain.
  • Removal of the guidance recommending regular asymptomatic testing with lateral flow tests.
  • Removal of the requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate.
  • Removal of the recommendation for fully vaccinated close contacts to test daily for 7 days.
  • Removal of routine tracing of close contacts of positive cases.
  • Removal of self-isolation support payments.
  • Removal of the obligation on workers to tell their employers when they are required to self-isolate.

From 24 March 2022 –

  • Removal of provisions which allow payment of statutory sick pay from day one of absence for those who have COVID.

From 1 April 2022 –

  • Removal of free lateral flow tests for symptomatic and asymptomatic people.
  • Removal of free PCR testing for all but vulnerable people and those in hospitals and high-risk settings.
  • Removal of guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification and the recommendation for certain venues to use the NHS COVID pass.
  • Removal of the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.
  • The “Working Safely” Guidance will be replaced with new public health guidance.

Further guidance

According to today’s information,  further Government guidance is to be provided although it appears that this may not be made available until 1 April 2022.  The guidance will include –

  • Specific guidance for staff working in provision of services to the vulnerable.
  • Updated guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people.
  • New public health guidance to replace the “Working Safely” Guidance.

For now, the Living with COVID-19 document says that individuals who test positive will continue to be advised to stay at home and avoid contact with other people.  After 5 days they may choose to take a lateral flow test, followed by another the next day and if both are negative and they do not have a temperature, they can return to their normal routine.    It also states that “those who test positive should avoid contact with anyone in an at risk group”.

Implications for employers

Today’s announcements include various aspects which impact on the workplace and employers will need to consider how they will manage a number of issues which arise from the removal of restrictions.   For example –

  • Should employees who have COVID but are asymptomatic or not too ill to work be required to stay at home or will they be expected or permitted to attend work. If they are asked to stay at home, what will their pay entitlement be?
  • If an employee elects to self-isolate if they are COVID-positive but would otherwise be well enough to work, should they be offered sick pay? Can/should the employer require them to come to work?
  • What are the risks in relation to clinically vulnerable staff members or employees who live with clinically vulnerable people, particularly if COVID-positive people attend work?
  • What is the impact of the removal of the requirement for an employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their health and safety risk assessment? Despite this,  what COVID-safe measures should employers keep in place or implement?
  • What health or vaccination information do employers need or want and can they process it lawfully under data protection laws?

Our immediate recommendation following today’s announcement is for employers to consider the various workplace issues which arise and to formulate a policy approach for their business.  Although this policy is likely to evolve as the 24 March and 1 April staging dates are reached and also once further Government guidance is released,  it will nonetheless be useful for managers to have an early indication of the business’s approach to enable them to address any tricky issues that arise in the next few weeks as restrictions are lifted.