Written by Anil Champaneri, Senior HR Consultant and Technical Lead at Alcumus

Two years on from the pandemic and as we adapt to the new normal ways of living, we continue to see a major reset in workplace trends and workforce management strategies. More and more employers have started rolling out hybrid working policies and encouraging staff to return to offices.

Last month, the UK government ended the remaining legal COVID-19 restrictions in England, including removal of the requirement to self-isolate. The Scottish and Welsh governments have removed/will be removing all remaining legal COVID-19 restrictions on 21 and 28 March 2022 respectively.

Despite the return of some sense of normality, employee health, safety and wellbeing continue to be top priorities for all employers. As such, business leaders are likely to encourage their employees to get booster jabs and take individual responsibility to be conscious of not coming into the office when not feeling well and treating COVID-19 like any other illness.

With that in mind, here are some key things employers can do to ensure workplace safety for all:

Promote vaccination

The COVID-19 vaccination: guide for employers suggests practical steps that employers can take to encourage vaccination uptake among staff, including sharing information on the facts about vaccination, offering time off to attend vaccination appointments, and showing support for vaccination from senior leadership by appointing departmental champions and encouraging senior staff to share their vaccination experiences. An employer can also look to introduce a vaccination policy. The Welsh vaccination guidance for employers also advises that employers encourage staff to get vaccinated, rather than requiring it.

In the absence of a legal requirement to be vaccinated, an employer cannot force an employee to be vaccinated without their consent. If can decides to prevent unvaccinated employees from entering the workplace or restrict their duties, this could still result in having to pay them their full pay.

The legal requirement for staff who work in care homes and social care to be vaccinated has been revoked following the recent public consultation. Nonetheless, the government remains committed to encouraging voluntary vaccination of workers in the care home and health and social care sectors.

The government intends to consult on strengthening the requirements of the Health and Social Care Act 2008: code of practice on the prevention and control of infections  in relation to COVID-19. It will also review the recommendations to increase vaccine update made by respondents to the consultation which included:

  • Providing further evidence and information on the benefits of vaccination and the likelihood of any risks.
  • Directly engaging with the vaccine hesitant.
  • Removing practical and logistical barriers to accessing the vaccine. For example, providing more vaccination sites and opening hours compatible with shift workers.

Reassure your employees and keep the workplace safe

Many employees can still be concerned about the risk of COVID-19 infection in the office. As such, having clear hygiene measures can help reassure employees that workplaces are clean and safe for them to work at.

Additionally, frequent deep cleaning and focusing on high-quality air filtration systems can also help people feel more secure about sharing workspaces. Allowing employees to avoid crowding at rush hours, some companies are staggering start and end times or giving employees the option of flexible hours.

It is worth noting that employers have a legal duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees and also towards non-employees.

Employers should assess the risk of exposure to COVID-19 created by their business activities and adopt steps to manage those risks.

Different rules may apply in different nations of the UK and employers should be aware of any restrictions that might apply in the relevant nation.

The UK government has published several Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) (COVID-19 secure) guides, for workplaces in England.

The guides cover the risk assessment and control measures that employers operating in different sectors are expected to follow. While there are some differences in the measures across different sectors, the guides, in general, cover several principles, including around:

  • managing risk and carrying out a risk assessment;
  • considering who should come to work and protecting those who are vulnerable;
  • communication and training;
  • ventilation;
  • reducing contact between workers and between workers and customers by, for example, installing screens or barriers and, for some workplaces, implementing “fixed teams or partnering”;
  • developing cleaning, handwashing and hygiene processes by, for example, frequent cleaning of busy areas and high-contact objects and surfaces and providing hand sanitiser and hand drying facilities;
  • preventing and managing COVID-19 outbreaks;
  • continued use of personal protective equipment where appropriate; and
  • the wearing of face coverings where applicable.

So, what are the key HR considerations?

  • Be aware of any restrictions remaining in place in the part of the UK where your business is located.
  • Continue to support employees to work from home where appropriate.
  • If considering introducing hybrid working, consult employees before making any decision.
  • Consult the government guidance relevant to your type of workplace and location in the UK.
  • Carry out a risk assessment for each workplace.
  • Consider what ventilation, social distancing measures and other mitigating actions are required to reduce the risk as far as reasonably practicable.
  • Consider whether to ask employees to wear face coverings even if this is no longer a legal requirement.
  • Support employees to avoid busy periods if using public transport when travelling to and from work.
  • Maintain support for employees’ wellbeing and be aware of the need to protect mental health as well as physical safety (considering introducing an employee assistance scheme).
  • Plan how to communicate to all employees about the return to the workplace and the measures and processes in place.
  • Be particularly cautious about the timing of a return to the workplace for employees with underlying health conditions or other risk factors.
  • If an employee refuses to return to work, investigate the reasons and try to manage their concerns.
  • Understand the data protection and privacy implications if considering a programme of testing or health monitoring.
  • Put in place contingency plans for the possibility of a further period of lockdown.