Last reviewed 7 September 2023

With the recent news that the Government will be rolling out its Covid and flu vaccination scheme a month earlier than planned this year, some employers may be concerned about Covid again. Whilst there is no suggestion that there is any cause for alarm, as autumn approaches now is a good opportunity to review the position on managing Covid and other infectious viruses in the workplace.

Stacie Cheadle, Croner-i Content Consultant and employment law researcher, looks at where we are now with Covid rules, and what employers need to remember should cases begin to rise within their workforce.

Covid and employment law

During the worse of the pandemic, when millions of people were ordered to work from home and schools were closed (except for vulnerable children and children of key workers), the Government moved swiftly to bring in a number of legal changes that had a significant effect on employers, including:

  • the requirement to self-isolate when either testing positive for Covid or displaying symptoms

  • waiting days for SSP payments were waived for Covid self-isolation

  • repayment of some SSP paid for Covid self-isolation

  • workers on the front line in the health and social care sector were forced (or nearly were) to choose between their job and a Covid vaccination

  • payments under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

The changes listed above are no longer in place, either they have been repealed from the law or the scheme under which they operated has closed. In particular, this means that the position on SSP has returned to how it was pre-pandemic and waiting days for all sickness absences have been re-introduced.

One change that has not yet been removed from the law is one which allowed annual leave to be carried over, for up to two years, where the employee had been unable to take it due to the impact of the Covid pandemic. However, since restrictions have been lifted and the pressure related to Covid has eased, this is unlikely to be applicable to any situation now. Indeed, the Government has suggested in consultation to amend the Working Time Regulations 1998 and repeal this.

Where are we now?

Covid remains an issue in the UK and HR must continue to manage it. With new variants continuing to emerge, it is important not to become apathetic to the virus. However, with the UK population now on its way to reaching hybrid immunity, either through vaccination or infection, the number of serious cases has become less.

Limiting the spread of viruses within the workforce

In order to protect their workforce, many employers have chosen to implement policies that require employees to inform them of a positive case of Covid and remain home on pay until they test negative or at least take additional precautionary measures if attending the workplace, such as wearing a face mask, distancing from others and sanitising surfaces regularly.

It will be important as we move into autumn and this winter’s flu season to ensure workplace practices are in place to limit the chances of any viruses spreading within the workforce, and that employees are given a refresher on what they need to do to follow these. This is likely to include a reminder to employees of the problems of presenteeism, when an employee attends work when they are too unwell to be there. Not only can this lead to stress and burnout on a personal level, but for those that are office or site-based, it can also increase the risk of the illness spreading through the workforce.

There are various steps that can be taken to prevent the transmission of Covid, flu and colds in the workplace. These include:

  • remaining vigilant about hygiene in the workplace, particularly handwashing

  • maintaining good ventilation

  • social distancing by keeping a distance between employees and others in the workplace

  • encouraging employees to have injections of Covid and flu vaccines

  • other steps such as face coverings

  • encouraging employees to work at home or partly at home.

Now that hybrid working has become established in many businesses, a transition to temporary homeworking during a bout of Covid or another virus, where the employee is well enough to work but could pass the illness on to others, should be easier to arrange and have little impact on the employee’s ability to perform their duties. Taking steps now to ensure employees have what they need to work in such a situation would mean there is time to make any additional arrangements, should it be necessary to implement this.

Next steps

Covid has not gone away, and as we continue to live with it, along with other viruses and illnesses, businesses must remain prepared to react swiftly should a case arise within their workforce, to prevent absences related to it spreading.

Making sure there are policies and procedures in place dealing with these situations is important, as is raising awareness amongst employees as to what they should do, should they suspect or know they are unwell with a contagious illness. Line managers may also need to be reminded of their role in controlling and managing these situations, to ensure they have a good understanding of the steps they need to take, should they need to.