With rising numbers and growing concerns about the Omicron variant, responsibility for taking action is once again being pushed onto employers.
The UK Government has not yet announced any timetable for implementing its 'Plan B' to tackle the anticipated winter surge of Covid-19 infections and pressure on the NHS. But today, when challenged by journalists about its strategy for protecting the British workforce and the prospect of a 'work from home' order, the response from Downing Street has been typically non-committal stating: "It is up to individual employers to decide what is the right balance for [them]".
Despite this, the Government has announced precautionary and temporary measures to prevent the spread of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant in the UK which will be effective from tomorrow, 30 November 2021. Although they will affect some workplaces, most office workers - when not commuting on public transport - will see no legal intervention. Face coverings will be compulsory in shops and other settings such as banks, post offices and hairdressers unless individuals are exempt from doing so on medical grounds. All travellers arriving into the UK will be required to take a PCR test and self-isolate until they have received a negative test result.
But many employers will now be faced with a dilemma - to carry on as they have been since the summer (at least until more is known about the effect of the new variant), or to take action now in a preventative bid to protect staff from what is, currently, an unknown, unverified level of threat.
A lot has been said over the past 18 months about the role and responsibilities of employers in protecting the health and safety of the workforce. Most companies are now familiar with their obligations and the risks of getting it wrong. It is also true that many employees are more familiar than they were about the duties their employer owes them and their colleagues. Engaging in a transparent and open conversation about employee fears and concerns can help shape any policy decisions, including workplace attendance and the expectations of employees.
For now, employers would be wise to update any health and safety risk assessments, reflect again on the Covid Workplace Guidance and take any action deemed appropriate. In addition, considering the specific risks to vulnerable pregnant and previously shielding employees, encouraging Covid self-testing regularly, avoiding face to face meetings and evaluating any planned large-scale events (including Christmas parties) that might otherwise be postponed (again) are all sensible places to start.
Although any last minute cancellations may cause short-term disappointment and see business leaders labelled Scrooge, the health and wellbeing of staff and, ultimately, business continuity will hopefully lead to happier times in the Christmases yet to come.
If you have any questions about how your business should be responding to new Covid threat levels, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On whether employers were still being encouraged to get people back into the office, the spokesman said: "Our position... has not altered from what it was previously. We [are] obviously keeping the evidence of this variant under review and we will take action if necessary, but currently we don't think there are any other changes required." He added: "In line with the guidance, we've said that it is safe for people to return to work. It is up to individual employers to decide what is the right balance for [them]."