Last reviewed 12 October 2020

As autumn sets in, employers and workers in the UK will, as usual, be anticipating seasonal colds and flu. However, this year’s winter flu season will pose some unique challenges — not least due to the extensive overlap in the symptoms of seasonal colds and the coronavirus. Vicky Powell looks at how best to manage seasonal flu and colds at work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The workplace during flu season

The annual season of colds, flu, coughs and sniffles has begun. Public health experts are currently facing concerns regarding a second peak of the Covid-19 virus at the same time and employers will need to support national efforts to tackle this problem, while ensuring the safety of their workers — and the health of their business.

Which workers are eligible for a free flu jab this year?

The Government has indicated that this flu season, many more people will be able to receive a free flu vaccine.

Employers should note that the NHS flu immunisation programme this year has been significantly expanded to offering the free vaccine to 50 to 64-year-olds.

This group, however, will be invited to have the vaccine later in the season with over 65s, pregnant women, health and social care staff and those in clinical risk groups among those prioritised.

Overall, the Department of Health and Social Care has said that it intends to double the number of people being immunised this year, with the aim of reducing the number of flu infections and therefore reducing the pressure on the NHS over the winter.

The major public health worry in the UK at the moment is that hospitals will struggle to cope with the usual annual rise in cases, deaths and hospitalisations associated with seasonal flu, at the same time as a possible surge in cases of Covid-19.

Recent (although limited) research indicates that suffering flu and Covid-19 together significantly increases your risk of death. The annual flu immunisation programme, which reduces the transmission of the flu virus, and decreases the number of cases, hospitalisations and influenza-related mortality will, therefore, be of even more importance this winter.

Colds, flu and the coronavirus at work

The NHS has recently shared the following tips on distinguishing between colds, the flu and the coronavirus, which may be of value for managers to share with their workers.

The NHS says flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include:

  • a sudden fever — a temperature of 38°C or above

  • an aching body

  • feeling tired or exhausted

  • a dry cough

  • a sore throat

  • a headache

  • difficulty sleeping

  • loss of appetite

  • diarrhoea or tummy pain

  • feeling sick and being sick.

Telling the difference between a cold and the flu can be tricky, but the NHS points out that the flu:

  • tends to appear quickly within a few hours

  • affects more than just your nose and throat

  • makes you feel exhausted and too unwell to carry on as normal.

In contrast, a cold:

  • appears gradually

  • affects mainly your nose and throat

  • makes you feel unwell, but generally sufferers feel well enough to carry on as normal (eg to do their work).

Coronavirus — the three key symptoms workers need to be aware of

This winter, the concern for workers, employers and public health experts alike will be whether symptoms could indicate the coronavirus, since clearly many symptoms for colds, flu and Covid-19 are common.

According to the NHS, three key symptoms to be aware of in the case of the coronavirus are:

  • a high temperature — this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not necessarily need to measure your temperature)

  • a new, continuous cough — this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)

  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste — you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.

Most people with coronavirus, the NHS notes, have at least one of these symptoms.

The NHS says, “If you have a high temperature, a new, continuous cough or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, it could be Covid-19”.

The NHS advises that if workers have any of the main symptoms of Covid-19, they should get a test as soon as possible and stay at home until they get the result.

Anyone the worker lives with, and anyone in their support bubble, must also stay at home until the result is received.

It goes without saying that it is not for managers or employers to attempt to diagnose the coronavirus (or any other illness) but for the worker’s GP or other healthcare professional. However, sharing information from the NHS may prove reassuring to worried staff members and their families.

This time last year, a worker may have happily gone into work sneezing and blowing their runny nose because they felt well enough to do their job. This same situation, this year, is likely to be extremely anxiety-provoking for fellow workers and customers, who probably won’t be reassured that the three key symptoms of Covid-19 are absent.

Employers will therefore need to put clear policies and advice for employees in place to deal with this year’s unusual situation, eg by emphasising to staff they should work from home at the first sign of a cold, waiting on professional diagnosis and health advice, while establishing relevant pay and HR policies.

The following points should be noted and communicated.

  • Workers can book a Covid test online or call 119 to get a test if there are problems using the internet.

  • Concerned workers should not go to places like a GP surgery, hospital or pharmacy but should use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service or call 111.

  • If workers think they or their child seems very seriously unwell, or there is something seriously wrong, they should call 999.

What to do if someone at work might have coronavirus?

Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, offers the following advice if someone at work might have coronavirus.

For a start, an individual should not go to the workplace if they:

  • have coronavirus symptoms or have tested positive for coronavirus

  • are told to self-isolate (stay at home) by the NHS Test and Trace service because they've been in close contact with someone who's tested positive

  • need to self-isolate because someone in their household has symptoms or has tested positive

  • need to self-isolate because they've returned to the UK after a holiday or business travel.

If they are already at work when they begin to feel ill, they should:

  • tell their employer immediately and go home

  • put on a mask if possible, avoid touching anything and wash their hands regularly

  • cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow

  • use a separate bathroom from others, if possible

  • avoid using public transport to travel home, if possible.

Acas says that if someone with coronavirus comes to work, the workplace does not necessarily have to close, but the organisation should follow the Government’s cleaning guidance.

If someone needs to self-isolate, it's good practice for employers to:

  • send them home immediately, if they're at work

  • support them staying at home while they self-isolate

  • arrange for them to work from home, if they're well enough to work

  • pay them any sick pay they're entitled to while self-isolating

  • support their wellbeing and mental health — see further information about supporting mental health during the pandemic.

Acas says, “Depending on someone's circumstances, they might have to self-isolate more than once during the coronavirus pandemic. Employers should support them in the same way each time”.

Flu season and worker anxiety

A recent survey by Cardiff and Southampton universities indicated that 9 in 10 UK employees who have worked from home during lockdown would like to continue to do so in some form.

The research (which involved thousands of people between April and June) also suggested the majority of people working from home are as productive, if not more.

Nevertheless, for some people, working from home has proved to be lonely and less stimulating than being in the office.

Yet, equally, many workers will be anxious about returning to the workplace, and these feelings are likely to intensify as the season of sniffs, coughs and colds gets fully under way.

In August 2020, the Royal College of General Practitioners Cases reported that cases of common colds, flu, and other respiratory diseases in England were substantially lower than average for that particular time of year.

Doctors believe this was largely thanks to lockdown and physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Dr Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College, said, “The social distancing measures we have seen over the last few months and an increased public emphasis on maintaining good hygiene have probably played their part, but we also know that some patients have been reluctant to use the NHS during Covid-19 because they haven’t wanted to overburden services at a time of crisis or are afraid of catching the virus”.

Where lockdown measures ease, rates of illnesses like the common cold and flu will be likely to rise.

Dr Marshall says that this shows the importance of maintaining good hygiene measures to protect not only against Covid-19 but also other common winter illnesses.

He added, “It’s also vital that patients who are eligible for a flu jab receive one — particularly those in at-risk groups.”

Besides the free NHS programme, other options for flu jabs include employer-sponsored initiatives, eg those run by healthcare providers such as Bupa, Benenden Health and Lloyds Pharmacy. This season, many local authorities will also be running campaigns to signpost their workers and the public to receive the flu vaccination, for example from their GP or local pharmacies.

The Government’s new “Hands, Face, Space” campaign to prevent the spread of coronavirus indoors this winter urges people to continue to:

  • wash their hands

  • cover their faces when social distancing is not possible

  • make space by keeping your distance from those who are not in your household.

In a time of national crisis, responsible employers and managers will wish to play their role in helping to keep their staff, customers and the public safe and healthy. And of course, good health is good business.

By remaining vigilant about hygiene in the workplace, maintaining good ventilation and social distancing, and continuing with other Covid-secure measures in the workplace (such as face coverings), employers and their managers can help to avoid the disastrous economic and health implications of a spike in cases of seasonal flu coinciding with a second major coronavirus wave.