Across the UK, self-isolation requirements, contact tracing and free testing have either already disappeared or will do so over the coming months. But with covid still here, this puts employers in a tricky position when it comes to their Health & Safety obligations.
In England, contact tracing has ended. Self-isolation is no longer a legal requirement, although anyone with covid is advised to stay at home and avoid others for at least 5 days. From April, lateral flow tests will no longer be free (except for over-75s and those with weakened immune systems), and PCR tests will only be available for those in (currently unspecified) at-risk groups.
In Wales, contact tracing will continue until 30 June. Until then, anyone with covid will still be advised (but not required) to self-isolate. From 28 March, PCR tests won't be widely available and lateral flow tests will only be free for people with symptoms (until the end of June).
In Scotland, contact tracing will continue until 30 April. From 1 May, anyone with symptoms won't be asked to test, but will be asked to stay home until they feel better. Anyone with covid won't be required to self-isolate, but will be advised to stay at home. From 18 April, lateral flow tests won't be free for most people. PCR tests won't be available from 1 May.
At the time of writing, Northern Ireland hasn't yet announced its plans.
From 24 March, statutory sick pay will return to its pre-pandemic position, meaning if staff are ill with coronavirus it'll only be payable from the 4th day of sick leave (rather than the 1st). It'll no longer be payable at all if staff are self-isolating rather than sick.
The Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme closes on 24 March – applications must be submitted by this date for absences between 17 December and 17 March (inclusive).
What are the consequences for employers?
Changes to testing availability mean staff are less likely to know when they have covid. Combined with the lack of contact tracing, this also means they're less likely to know when they've been in contact with someone who has covid.
Even if they can confirm they have covid, they can choose to declare themselves ready and able to work rather than go off sick or self-isolate. This is even more likely now that the temporary sick pay rules are ending.
All this means you could easily have infectious staff coming into the workplace. This could:
cause staffing problems if lots of people go off sick at once;
put certain staff at greater risk if they're especially clinically vulnerable; and
potentially lead to longer-term problems (e.g. long-covid).
New government guidance in England is due to be published on 1 April – this may or may not clarify exactly what employers should be doing, but for now here are a few likely issues that you should think about.
Should you stop covid-affected staff coming into work?
Ideally, yes – but in reality this will depend greatly on the circumstances in your business.
You do have a continuous legal duty under health and safety laws to keep your staff and visitors safe during the working day. This means you must take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm to your staff by:
- Following industry standards and current government advice.
- Performing a risk assessment.
In England, the 1 April government guidance is expected to say that you won't explicitly need to consider covid in your risk assessments. Despite that, it's a good idea to continue doing so anyway, as your obligations under general health and safety rules won't change.
Your risk assessment should identify the risk of illness, decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously, and identify actions to eliminate (or, if not possible, control) the risk.
You can use this to form a policy about what staff should do in different situations. This will help staff to understand their obligations and your reasons for putting them in place – it'll also help to show that you've taken your health and safety obligations seriously.
Note, though, if staff are able and willing to come into work and you ask them not to, you'll need to pay them in full unless there's something in their contracts that says you don't have to.