England’s decision to end all Covid-19 restrictions poses a dilemma for employers.
While many companies welcome the move as part of the U.K. government’s robust plan to live with Covid, some employees remain nervous and cautious.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it is time for everybody to get their confidence back and for local authorities to be responsible for managing outbreaks using pre-existing powers. All Covid restrictions were lifted in England only on February 24, with free mass testing due to end on April 1.
The politicians in the rest of the U.K. — Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — have yet to decide whether to follow England’s lead and drop, for example, the legal requirement to self-isolate.
The direction of travel globally is certainly towards a more relaxed approach.
The U.S. has already cut the recommended self-isolation period to five days, while European countries are reducing restrictions at different speeds. Australia has started to welcome vaccinated tourists again, two years after sealing its borders.
The announcement for England means employers face some tricky decisions over the next couple of months.
Employment lawyer David Jepps from Keystone Law said organizations in England must think carefully about their next move.
“Employers need to balance their duty of care to all employees with running their organizations under the shadow of Covid-19,” he said. “Will employees want to come in with mild symptoms or take time off if they feel bad? Will employers want them to come in to work?”
He said the special statutory sick pay arrangements (SSP) which allow those testing positive to receive SSP even if they do not feel unwell and would otherwise be fine to work, were already due to end on March 24. Under government-led SSP employers to pay £96.35 ($130.80) per week to an individual who is too sick to work.
“When those arrangements end and an employee is symptomatic and unable to work, then normal sickness rules would apply given they would be incapacitated.” he added.
Employers are being urged to update their risk assessments to ensure they continue to provide a safe workplace.
Some companies may continue to implement rules around mask wearing and social distancing as well as insisting that people work from home if they test positive.
Research by building and facilities management technology company Infogrid hints that eventually workers will embrace the new rules.
Its study, released in January, revealed that 44% of 2,000 Brits polled say they are more productive in the office, which 35% of them see as a positive social environment and 26% a reason to leave the house. However, 29% of Brits remain worried about ventilation in the workplace.
Jess Reeves, director of brand and people at health-tech company Doctify, said companies might find it hard to adapt after two years of being cautious.
“We are taking a flexible approach and letting people decide if they feel comfortable enough being in the office,” said Reeves. “If any of Doctify’s team members test positive, we inform those they have come in contact with and let them decide if they wish to work from home or continue coming to the office. We will ask anyone who tests positive to stay home for five days and take a lateral flow test before returning to the office.”
While many office workers have a choice, it is not always as simple for other sectors such as manufacturing.
Mick Howard is CEO of soft drinks company Clearly Drinks whose brands include flavored spring water Perfectly Clear. He said keeping staff safe must be the priority.
“As teams return to the office we will implement additional hygiene standards. We have put social distancing markers throughout our office and factory with extra training and regular health and safety inspections to ensure all our employees are distanced and protected,” he said. “Like most organizations, we have experienced isolated Covid cases and the pandemic did cause us some challenges in the supply chain.”
Ultimately, employees in all sectors will need time to adapt to the new rules in England.
Wellness consultancy Calm People runs emotional resilience workshops, and director Julian Hall said people have got used to being at home and it feels safe. Hall does not expect all employees to comply with the new guidance immediately because it will take time for any workforce to become comfortable with new office routines.
“We are suddenly allowed to roam wherever, whenever and without a mask if we choose. This puts in place a feeling of uncertainty and can breed anxiety,” he said.
He added: “By providing a combination of clear expectations and guidance, backed up with flexibility for those who find the change a challenge, a business will be providing a safe psychological environment for their teams to make the next adjustment.”