What are the changes?
From 24th of February, the COVID-19 restrictions in England have been lifted in an effort to go back to the pre-pandemic life. In achieving this goal, the Government is planning a phased transition. From 24th of February, the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive COVID-19 test was removed. The contact tracing scheme was also abolished. Therefore, close contacts that are not fully vaccinated will no longer need to test daily for a week. Also, close contacts that are not vaccinated will not be required to self-isolate anymore.
From the 24th of March, the law on Statutory Sick Pay reverted to its pre-pandemic form. Therefore, those infected with Coronavirus will no longer be able to claim SSP from day one, but after 4 days of continuous illness. Also, during COVID, a Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme was put in place whereby employers who had fewer than 250 employees could claim back from the Government up to two weeks of paid SSP. This scheme also ended on 24th of March.
From the 1st of April, the Government removed the requirement that the employer should explicitly consider COVID 19 in their risk assessment. Free lateral flow and PCR tests also stopped being available from this date. The Working Safely Guidance, which set out guidelines for employers to tackle the spread of respiratory diseases, has been replaced from the 1st of April with the more general public health guidance.
Nevertheless, the Government has stressed that employers should continue to consider the risk of employees at greater risk from COVID. In this respect, the Government has commissioned research into how the ventilation in buildings can be improved. The report is due to be published in May.
What do all these changes mean for employers?
Firstly, the removal of the COVID-specific Working Safely Guidance will not affect the employer’s duty of care to ensure that the employees’ safety is properly safeguarded. As such, the employees should carefully listen to the employees’ concerns and adapt their risk assessment accordingly. Employees who are anxious about returning to offices or those who are in a risk category, can request to work remotely. Most companies already have in place the infrastructure to allow remote work. Moreover, the Government has recently published a consultation document, Making Flexible Working the Default, which advocates for the employee’s right to request flexible working from day one of their employment.
Secondly, the abolition of free testing raises the question of who will cover the cost of testing if the business requires the staff to test before coming into the workplace. Also, as the law on SSP is coming back to its pre-pandemic form, employers will need to decide if they will enable staff to stay at home and provide them with contractual sick pay. At the same time, if an employee tests positive, the question that arises is whether the employer has the right to require them to self-isolate, and if he does, for how long should the employee self-isolate? The Government has not provided an answer yet on these issues, so it is likely that the responsibility will fall on the employer, who needs to effectively communicate with its employees and properly address their concerns.