The latest on shielding

Due to the reintroduction of lockdowns across Britain, shielding has returned in England, Scotland and Wales. This means that those who are most at risk from the coronavirus will be sent letters instructing them to stay in their homes meaning they should not come into work even if they cannot work from home. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores this in more detail below.

Shielding was originally introduced for clinically vulnerable people as a measure to both protect said individuals and relieve pressure on the NHS at the peak of the pandemic. As cases started to fall in summer 2020, shielding was paused and those previously advised to stay away from work were able to return. However, now it has returned, here are the key things that employers need to keep in mind:

  • Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is payable to everyone who has been advised to shield from day one of their absence. Staff who can work from home should be encouraged to do so.

  • If the company has less than 250 members of staff, they may be able to claim for up to two weeks of SSP through the SSP Rebate Scheme

  • Those advised to shield can be furloughed under the Job Retention Scheme, meaning they do not work and the Government partially funds their wages, even if the business has otherwise not seen a downturn as a result of the pandemic, provided the company and the employee are eligible.

  • Contractual sick pay could also be provided for those who are shielding, and should be processed as normal.

  • Some ailments on the vulnerable persons' list may be considered a disability. Individuals with disabilities are protected by law if they refuse to work where there is a likely threat to their health, so employers must tread lightly on the subject to avoid claims of discrimination.

Reassuring staff

It is advisable for employers to send out letters and/or emails (to personal email addresses) detailing to each employee the steps that will be taken if they are advised to shield. Across Britain, current guidance is that staff should work from home if they can, meaning that advice to shield may not necessarily require much change to current arrangements. However, if staff cannot work from home, employers should reassure them that this does not put their job at risk and they must be open and honest about any advice they receive to shield. At no point should anyone feel coerced to come into the workplace when advised not to.

The appointment of a communications co-ordinator could help towards managing the resulting impact of this as it assures staff that the business is dedicated to making sure they are well considered. This could also help to ensure that the business is aware of any problems with shielded employees. This too will facilitate informed decision-making on the part of the employer and gives affected employees a point of contact for any ongoing queries.

As of February 2021

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE) have issued revised guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from Covid-19. Up to 1.7 million patients have been added to the Shielded Patient List and will be sent letters advising them to shield. This means that employers will need to consider that other members of their workforce who have not previously been asked to shield may now be told to do so.

Individuals in England who are shielding are advised to work from home wherever possible but where remote working is not possible, shielders are still not expected to attend work. Where the latter is concerned, it may be necessary to consider placing affected staff on furlough or on statutory sick leave and pay.

Takeaway

Employers should continue to keep the situation under review. Notably, the Government has stated that it hopes to be in a much better situation by the Spring, meaning advice to shield may once again be paused. Until then, employers should ensure that they are adhering to all requirements. Specifically, they will have to communicate effectively with each affected employee to ascertain how best to move forward in ways that benefit both the employee and the wider business.