The reopening of the UK economy is a good news story that we should all welcome, but employers and employees still need to tread carefully in the months ahead…

The pop icon Prince once sang of partying “like its 1999”.  Twenty-one years after the millennium and I suspect that most of our ambitions are now a little less exciting, with just going out to meet friends and family like it was 2019 being the rather more modest goal.

And at long last a return to that normality seems within touching distance.  Indeed the four devolved nations of the United Kingdom all appear to be proceeding serenely along the path to easing or removing COVID-19 restrictions in the weeks immediately ahead.  And trials last week for rock concerts, business conferences, and sports events all suggest that we are moving in the right direction too.

The return to work

And of course the return to the physical workplace for many workers is now on the cards also.

The UK vaccination programme continues to reach more working-age adults each day, and more good news arrived last week with the confirmation that the vaccines are reducing transmission of COVID-19 as well as saving lives.

Both these facts suggest that the return to the physical workplace may perhaps represent fewer problems than businesses initially feared.  Yet UK employers may still need to think very carefully about their return-to-work planning.  Not least because there is no proof that the vaccine in isolation is going to be sufficient to beat COVID-19 and its many mutations.

Experience elsewhere? 

For a reality check it is certainly worth looking beyond these shores, and at one of the very few nations of significant population size that has surpassed the vaccination numbers of the UK.

The South American nation of Chile has vaccination numbers recorded at 77.7 doses per 100 people, which is more than either the United Kingdom (75.0) or the USA (73.8) at the time of writing.*  Yet despite this success Chile has recently experienced another major surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths, and new lockdowns and restrictions as a result.

So how has this happened, and how can UK based employers help avoid a repeat of the last 15 months of on-off restrictions that we have all experienced?

What’s gone wrong in Chile?

Of course it’s difficult to be entirely clear on the problems in Chile.

As well as the usual variance in population demographics and geographical differences, there is also the fact that the Chilean vaccination programme is centred on a vaccine developed in Beijing, which might perhaps be less effective than those used in the UK and USA.  Or it may be that Chile has just been more exposed to new variants that are more resilient to the vaccine provided.

Yet there is a growing school of thought that the issue might be too heavy a reliance on Chile’s national vaccination programme to resolve the COVID-19 threat in isolation.

Human nature being what it is, it seems likely that once vaccinated the Chilean population perhaps became less fearful of the virus and less cautious as a result.  So established measures to combat the virus spread (such as face coverings and social distancing) were forgotten by some, which in turn may have led to more transmission and a surge in cases as a result.

Caution advised

So the reality is that UK employers and employees shouldn’t wholly rely on the vaccination programme.  Until the virus is completely supressed worldwide there will remain a significant risk of resurgence, so it’s vital that employers and their employees don’t lower their guard too far in the months ahead.

And, again, a look overseas may prove instructive here.  It is now well documented that many Asian nations have recorded far fewer deaths than their European counterparts.  In particular I would highlight Japan – a nation of similar size and wealth to the UK (and an island nation too) – which has recorded around 10,000 deaths compared to the UK’s 127,000.  And neighbouring South Korea has fewer than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths despite a population of more than 50 million.

These stark differences might well be as a direct result of the experience that both nations gained in responding to recent health epidemics that failed to reach European shores.  Combating threats such as SARS and MERS has doubtless provided businesses and the wider population with an inherent awareness of the right things to do when facing such a situation.  As a result the population is perhaps more prepared to quickly adopt simple and inexpensive measures (such as mask wearing) that might make a very big difference to transmission rates.

More than vaccinations

So it is important to accept that the vaccination programme in isolation might not be enough to protect the UK, its businesses, and its workers unless other measures are adopted too.

As I outlined in this article in January, I would strongly encourage employers to go beyond the minimum COVID-19 secure policy suggested by the government, and instead introduce a more robust policy that reflects the needs of your workplace and your particular employee population.  This can then be deployed quickly in response to a resurgence of COVID-19, or indeed any (as yet unknown) infectious health threat of the future too.

So I would urge employers to hope for the best, but continue to plan for the worst.

After all, we all want to party like its 1999 again, and the best way to do that is to control and contain COVID-19 in 2021 and beyond.

About the author

Steve Herbert, our regular columnist, is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing

*BBC news website 04/05/21

By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.