Last reviewed 17 July 2020

Government guidance states that employers “should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to Covid-19”. Mike Sopp offers some practical suggestions.

The UK coronavirus alert level now sits at level 3, meaning the virus is considered to be “in general circulation” and that there could be a “gradual relaxation of restrictions”.

As part of the relaxation of restrictions, UK businesses are required to operate under Covid-19 secure guidelines that are aimed at preventing or reducing the risk of transmission of the virus in the workplace.

This is based around the process of risk assessment, with the guidance stating that employers “should have particular regard to whether the people doing the work are especially vulnerable to Covid-19”.

Employer duties

Covid-19 is not only a public health issue, but also a workplace risk that must be controlled by employers. Government guidance states that “everyone needs to assess and manage the risks of Covid-19, and in particular, businesses should consider the risks to their workers and visitors”.

In doing so, employers should use official Government guidance to inform “decisions and control measures”.

With each of the home nations taking slightly differing approaches as the UK moves out of lockdown, it is important that employers refer to the relevant guidance being produced by the various administrations for their respective home nation.

One of the key aspects of the guidance is to protect people who are at higher risk, ie to “protect clinically extremely vulnerable and clinically vulnerable individuals”.

Clinically vulnerable individuals include those over the age of 70 years and those with underlying health problems.

Clinically, extremely vulnerable individuals are those people with specific underlying health conditions that increase the risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19. A full list of groups falling into this category can be found on GOV.UK.

Current guidance for the two groups is::

  • clinically extremely vulnerable individuals have been strongly advised not to work outside the home during the pandemic peak and only return to work when community infection rates are low

  • clinically vulnerable individuals have been advised to take extra care in observing social distancing and should be helped to work from home, either in their current role or in an alternative role.

For the latter group, where working from home is not feasible, employers must assess the risks of being in the workplace.

Risk assessment

For those employees falling into the clinically vulnerable group, current guidance states that where they cannot work from home, “they should be offered the option of the safest available on-site roles, enabling them to maintain social distancing guidelines” (ie 2 metres or 1 metre with “risk mitigation” where 2 metres is not viable).

Where social distancing cannot be maintained, employers are required to “carefully assess whether this involves an acceptable level of risk”.

In England, guidance in relation to clinically extremely vulnerable groups in respect of shielding is changing. From 1 August 2020, the Government advises that individuals can “adopt strict social distancing rather than full shielding measures”.

The guidance further states that in practice this means individuals in this group can go to work, if they cannot work from home, “as long as the business is Covid-safe”. This also applies to employees who live with people in this group.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, these individuals cannot return to workplaces before at least 31 July 2020 and from 16 August 2020 in Wales.

Employers should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option in controlling the risk for vulnerable groups, but where this is not possible, a full risk assessment for the individual should be carried out.

When undertaking an assessment, the employee in question should be fully involved. It is also advisable to include Human Resources as there is likely to be a cross-over of functions in terms of controlling the risks.

When completing the assessment, a number of factors will need to be taken into consideration.

  • the particular vulnerability of the individual

  • where and how the work is undertaken (including getting to work, access and egress, use of welfare facilities, etc)

  • whether their work can be undertaken at home

  • where work cannot be done at home, whether it be undertaken with strict social distancing recommendations (which may involve adapting the work if necessary)

  • where social distancing is not possible, can the employee be offered alternative employment.

Social distancing is clearly a key factor to consider. Current guidance for working safely is that, where possible, social distancing should be maintained at 2 metres.

Where 2 metres cannot be maintained, employers are required to manage the risk of transmission by mitigating 1 metre distancing with risk control measures as detailed in the relevant sector guidance documents.

This applies to those in the clinically vulnerable group but, as noted above, those who are in clinically extremely vulnerable groups are currently required to maintain “strict social distancing”. This may change, however, and employers should ensure they keep abreast of any Government/home nation administration guidance.

Social distancing, risk mitigation and adjustments to working practices should all be considered. The use of personal protective equipment is currently not seen as appropriate risk control for vulnerable persons, however, other than in the settings described in the various guidance documents on PPE produced by the home administrations. See the feature Using PPE effectively against coronavirus for details.

Other vulnerable groups

In addition to the vulnerable groups detailed above, employees who are pregnant must also be given special consideration.

There is a long-standing requirement for employers to put in place measures to ensure workplace safety where a significant health and safety risk is identified for a new or expectant mother.

Employers should review this, taking account of HSE guidance which states that “during the outbreak, pregnant workers have been advised to follow stringent social distancing to reduce the risk of severe illness from coronavirus”.

There is evidence of disproportionate mortality and morbidity among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people as a result of Covid-19 infection.

At present, there is no official Government guidance that requires employees in the BAME group to be subject to an individual risk assessment for vulnerability to Covid-19. However, many organisations are looking at including BAME employees in vulnerability risk assessments. Most notably, the NHS approach to risk assessing vulnerable employees does include BAME employees.

Of interest, the NHS also includes other potential vulnerabilities such as age, weight, disabilities and gender as there is some evidence to suggest these can impact on the risk factor of individuals to Covid-19.

Certainly many unions are now advocating that employers take into account wider groups and not just those identified as clinically vulnerable.

As with any risk assessment process, employers should consult with employees and their representatives to discuss and agree the most appropriate way forward.

Further information

Information on the NHS approach to risk assessing vulnerable employees can be found at www.nhsemployers.org.

UK Government guidance on shielding can be found at GOV.UK.