The COVID-19 Autumn and Winter Plan: Key points for employers

The UK government has outlined its COVID-19 response for autumn and winter for England and stated that the main line of defence to the coronavirus pandemic is now vaccination rather than lockdown.  The government’s response includes both a Plan A – the intended approach which will be taken through autumn and winter – and a Plan B, which will be enacted if the data suggests that further measures are necessary to protect the NHS.

In summary, the government’s Plan A means:

  • That any employees with COVID-19 symptoms should continue to self-isolate and take a PCR test. A positive result will continue to result in a legal requirement to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.
  • NHS Test & Trace will engage with all positive cases and ask their close contacts to take a PCR as soon as possible. Close contacts will not be required to self-isolate if they are under the age of 18 years 6 months or are fully vaccinated*. However, close contacts who are not fully vaccinated will be required to self-isolate for 10 days, as now.
  • Individuals are encouraged to download and use the NHS COVID-19 App to be alerted to exposure to the virus. Employers are therefore likely to continue to have employees who are ‘pinged’ by the App. In these circumstances, although employees will be advised by the App to take a PCR test, there is no obligation to do so and no legal requirement for the employees to self-isolate, even if not fully vaccinated.  However, employers should continue to be alive to the risks of employees attending the workplace when they have been in close contact with a positive case.
  • By law, employers must not ask or allow employees to come into work if they are legally required to self-isolate. There are financial sanctions for doing so.
  • Shielding has come to an end and therefore clinically extremely vulnerable employees should continue to follow the same guidance as the rest of the population. However, the government will continue to assess the situation.
  • The government will continue to provide businesses with up-to-date Working Safely guidance on how employers can reduce the risks in their workplace. This guidance should be considered in preparing health and safety risk assessments.
  • Businesses are encouraged to:
    • Ask employees to stay at home if they are feeling unwell;
    • Ensure there is an adequate supply of fresh air to indoor spaces;
    • Provide hand sanitiser to staff and customers and clean surfaces which people touch regularly;
    • Display an NHS QR code poster to allow visitors to check in using the NHS COVID-19 App;
    • Consider using the NHS COVID Pass.
  • The government will shortly set out a revised framework for international travel, which is expected to involve an overhaul of the current traffic light system before 1 October 2021 and potentially remove the requirement for fully vaccinated individuals to have PCR tests. Employers will therefore need to continue to keep up-to-date with, and review, the impact of developments in this area as business starts to return to normal.

Plan B has been outlined as follows, so that the public and businesses know now what to expect if further measures become necessary in the future:

  • Communicating clearly and urgently to the public that the level of risk has increased and, with it, the need to behave more cautiously;
  • Introducing mandatory vaccine-only COVID status certification in certain settings. Businesses would be given at least 1 week’s notice of implementation and the government will shortly publish more detail in order to help businesses prepare their own contingency plans. For now, the government has confirmed that this will not be introduced in venues with large crowds as originally announced in July 2021;
  • Legally mandating face coverings in certain settings (for now, this only remains a non-binding recommendation in crowded and enclosed public spaces where contact is made with people that the individual is not usually in contact with);
  • Asking people to work from home, if they can (but a final decision on this would be made on data at the time).

A final point of interest is that the government has indicated that Lateral Flow Tests will continue to be provided free-of-charge over the coming months, but in the future, universal free provision will end and individuals and businesses will bear the cost.

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*14 days post-second dose of an approved vaccine