Last reviewed 21 January 2022

As more clinical data and medical advice becomes available there are both well-established and evolving steps that employers can take to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of staff, visitors and members of the public from changing coronavirus strains. Jon Herbert explores.

A constant factor during the pandemic has been uncertainty as the virus’ structure and methods of invading the human body continue to change. While an early end to the national and international crisis is hoped for, variables and unknowns mean that taking short- and long-term health and safety decisions can appear complex.

As an example, at this point it is still unclear whether the more recent and infectious Omicron variant will out-compete and replace the severe Delta variant. Alternatively, both could co-exist. A third possibility researchers are considering is that the two may combine to form a further variant.

However, this goes hand-in-hand with new prevention and treatment developments, a broader academic understanding of what is involved, plus more effective palliative care.

The challenge for many businesses is knowing what measures to take in the workplace as politicians, researchers, health experts and lay observers make statements, express opinions, cite anecdotal evidence and importantly update their own advice.

The most important recent change has been the December 2021 announcement of Plan B special measures to slow the rate of Omicron infection which will be withdrawn again on 27 January 2022.

This will end the mandatory use of face covering in public places, although the advice is still to wear a mask in crowded and indoor spaces, or when coming into contact with people not normally met.

The use of the Covid passports is no longer a requirement, although the NHS Covid Pass can still be used on a voluntary basis.

Advice for people to work from home when possible is being reversed, with employees recommended to talk to their employers about arrangements for returning to workplaces.

The legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive Covid test will also be replaced with new advice and guidance.

However, by reverting to Plan A, the Government is still encouraging the uptake of booster vaccinations.

Working to keep everyone “safe”

Fortunately, there is authoritative guidance and detailed information sources which are updated regularly that employers can consult to help keep working environments not only as safe but also as productive as possible.

The experience of 2020 and 2021 has been that both physical health and mental wellbeing need to be safeguarded in conventional workplaces and, for many workers, during remote homeworking. Omicron’s high rate of infection has made this more rather than less important.

The new variant has put extra strains not only on public sector workers in the health and emergency services where levels of self-isolation and sickness have risen dramatically, but also the utility, power and manufacturing industries. This has compromised the supply chains many companies depend upon, as well as their own role as reliable supply chain partners.

Accordingly, the Government’s advice is still to take steps to “keep the virus at bay”. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the latest end of Plan B changes should not be seen as the “finish line” because the virus and its future variants cannot be eradicated. Instead, “we must learn to live with Covid in the same way that we do with flu”.

Rapid chain of events

Events have unfolded swiftly since WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern named Omicron on 26 November 2021 (Update on Omicron).

Omicron seems to be less severe than earlier variants, with vaccination and immunity after infection providing strong protection against severe disease and death. But the long-term impacts are still unknown.

One ad hoc data study for example has suggested in the interim that infected professional footballers suffer a lingering fall-off in form and performance. In the first 100 days after infection, the data used indicates they are less likely to be selected, spend less time on the pitch and complete fewer passes. But this type of evidence is subjective rather than definitive.

Information sources

The reassuring news is that the steps many companies have already taken and adapted to since the pandemic started are still applicable, with some additional requirements and modifications. Most of the health and safety guidance developed in the last two years may be changing but has not been rescinded.

The most visible source of advice may be the day-to-day policy announcements made by the Government based on evolving circumstances and the scientific advice of its experts.

These are made through the Prime Minister’s Office (www.gov.uk). Plan B was announced in December (Prime Minister confirms move to Plan B in England).

Official details of Plan B removal should appear on government websites shortly.

Other detailed updates are published frequently by government departments to reflect changing circumstances in the workplace, education settings and social situations.

The HSE as a government agency also provides technical advice that is amended carefully as further reliable information and data become available.

Other detailed sources also examine specific issues affecting business; Croner-i has published roughly 1600 Covid-related special features since the pandemic began.

A useful entry point is the Coronavirus Toolkit which is updated regularly with comprehensive links for subscribers and more limited access for non-subscribers, who can nevertheless see what is available and sign up for more information.

Mainstream print, online and broadcast media also release regular information attributed to accountable sources.

Advice from government departments

It is important to remember that more detailed guidance on the removal of Plan B restrictions will be issued soon. This may also affect each of the specific sector activity categories shown below. Checking regularly for updates and amendments is good practice.

The Government’s official advice which was reviewed on 7 January 2022 can be seen here and is broken down into specific guidance:

HSE updated advice

Since the pandemic began HSE has published continuing guidance to help keep workplaces safe (https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/roadmap-further-guidance.htm). A further review is due on 30 January 2022 and regularly thereafter.

Current updates cover an end of Plan B measures, controls to reduce virus risks, vaccinations, face coverings, workplace testing, testing and contact tracing — plus a from public health bodies and government departments that is not enforced by the HSE.

  • Removal of Plan B measures

    The HSE site has been amended to reflect an end to Plan B. Latest information on recent changes can be seen here. There is separate guidance for Scotland and Wales.

  • Controls to reduce Covid-19 risks

    It is still important for employers to control and review their current risk assessments. Specific advice is also given on adequate ventilation and cleaning, and hand hygiene which remain unchanged.

  • Reducing employee contacts

    Measures to restrict the number of people employees are in contact with so that they can work consistently within limited groups also reduces transmission risks. Activity-specific guidance is given here.

Advice from public health bodies and government departments

  • Vaccinations

    The NHS currently leads the Covid-19 vaccine programme. Acas also offers advice on vaccinations at work.

  • Face coverings

    Face coverings can help to reduce the transmission risks. However, they are not classified as personal protective equipment (PPE) or covered by health and safety legislation. Useful references are www.hse.gov.uk and www.gov.uk.

  • Workplace testing

    Government public health departments lead on workplace testing; HSE is not responsible. However, further information for employers in England is available here, in Scotland here and in Wales here .

    Businesses should ensure workplace testing is carried out safely with control measures in place to manage transmission risks (www.hse.gov.uk plus www.acas.org.uk).

Around the UK

Letting staff work from home where possible will become a legal requirement again in Scotland until circumstances change, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Employers in Scotland have been told that they must legally allow staff to work from home where possible until at least the middle of January. A workplace testing scheme with two weekly lateral flow kits has been in place for staff who are not able to work remotely.

In Northern Ireland, ministers have said that encouraging more people to work from home will reduce infection risks inside and in outside workplaces, although employers have simply been told to support this "where possible".

The same message has been sent to employers in Wales.

Continuing responsibilities and reporting concerns

Although social distancing limits no longer apply across most of the UK, businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks to staff and customers.

Meanwhile, if employees feel unsafe they can contact their local authority, Citizens Advice (www.citizensadvice.org.uk) or the HSE.

Takeaways

As the coronavirus pandemic moves into a third year, employers have continuing responsibilities to keep staff, visitors and members of the public potentially at risk from workplace environments safe.

With many different news, opinion and advice channels available, sourcing reliable advice is important. There is a hierarchy of reliable information.

The most high-profile is probably daily bulletins presented through the Prime Minister’s Office by ministers and a team of senior experts (www.gov.uk).

Detailed guidance is also released regularly by government departments (www.gov.uk).

In parallel, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as a specialist government agency, publishes carefully updated technical information (www.hse.gov.uk).

Croner-i has published roughly 1600 Covid-related special features since the pandemic began. A useful entry point is the Coronavirus Toolkit. This is updated regularly and provides comprehensive links for subscribers, plus more limited access for non-subscribers who can nevertheless see what is available and sign up for more information.