Employers: Batten down the hatches to weather the storm of change
This week, the government surprised us with new announcements relating to the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions that have proved to be controversial amongst the general public. For employers, the priority now is to arm yourself with all the correct information and plan for the future.
Living with Covid
On Thursday 10th February, the Prime Minister announced new measures relating to the wearing of masks and ending mandatory self-isolation in a bid to get the country “back to normal”. Effectively, the onus is on the individual to act responsibly regarding the possibility of spreading infection.
While these announcements have come as a surprise, there has been no published scientific evidence that shows ending restrictions early would be a cause for concern. Although, evidence from the government’s Sage advisers published in mid-January suggested that the lifting of plan B measures could result in a return to epidemic growth, actually infection rates continued to fall: between 3 February 2022 and 9 February 2022, positive results decreased 22.8% compared with the previous seven days.
The issues with freedom
However, there are concerns that the general public will begin to perceive these new freedoms as reasons to not take testing or precautions seriously. Sage spokespeople also said the risk is high “particularly if precautionary behaviour, including testing, decreases as a result of reduced perception of risk”.
For employers, they will no doubt face quandaries as to whether to make their own assessment of how to respond to the lifting of restrictions or wait for further guidance.
Remember the duty of care
Due to health and safety legislation, all employers have a duty of care to protect the health of their staff, irrespective of Covid. It could be possible for employers to face a tribunal if there is an outbreak of Covid at work and staff feel they were not protected enough. This could be made worse if someone were to fall seriously ill or die, or a relative was to suffer as a result of that worker passing on the disease. The simplest approach to manage this risk is to continue to implement Covid secure measures in the workplace and encourage voluntary participation in regular lateral flow testing.
We also reported this week about a worker who successfully sued his employer who attempted to force him back to the office, despite his requests to work from home due to the vulnerability of his partner during the early stages of the pandemic when the government guidance was to work from home if you can. However, what this case highlights is that employers always need to be wary of employees’ individual circumstances, particularly if they are vulnerable or care for someone who is. Employers should also consider the vaccination status of their employees and whether they feel safe returning to work. Plus, there’s the more humanitarian side to it – people have got used to a better work/life balance due to working from home and if returning to the office full time could prove detrimental to other life commitments or mental health, this should be taken into consideration as well when planning the best commercial business/employee relationship strategy going forward. Many of our clients have reported greater productivity and commitment from staff who are working from home possibly reflecting the benefits of less time commuting and an overall better work-life balance. This, of course, will not universally be the case.
Check contracts and make changes
Ultimately, employees are tied by their contracts. Technically, if an employee’s contract states their place of work is in an office, employers can request that they return to the office - but it is recommended employers treat each person on a case-by-case basis, instead of implementing blanket rules.
Now’s the time for employers and HR teams to revisit those contracts and start conversations with employees about how they feel about the easing of restrictions - and keep those lines of communication open. Don’t assume people won’t want to return to work, you might find people welcome the opportunity to return to “normal” office life - but also don’t assume everybody wants the same thing.
For further help and advice, contact the employment team at Downs Solicitors to see how we can help.