21 Sep 2023

Autumn is here. So is COVID-19.

COVID-19 seems to be raising its ugly head again and we are once again hearing echoes of "I’ve tested positive…." So, is covid back and is it going to dominate our workplaces once again this winter?

There are currently no COVID-19 restrictions in the UK. COVID-19 however remains a public health issue with public health advice in place from the government. Regardless of whether you have 1 or 100 employees there are things you can do to help reduce the spread of any virus in the workplace and to manage any illness and/or absences related to COVID-19.

Symptoms of COVID-19, flu and other respiratory infections include:

  • A high temperature or shivering (chills)
  • A new continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour of 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours
  • A loss of change to your sense of smell or taste
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or exhausted
  • An aching body
  • A headache
  • A sore throat
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick or being sick

However, the symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other illness including cold and flu.

How to reduce the spread of respiratory infections such as COVID-19 and flu in the workplace.

This is especially important if there are people in the workplace whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 or other respiratory infections.

Free testing is no longer available for the majority of people so you may find that people who report with seasonal colds and flu may have also had COVID-19 but unless they take a test they will never know. You will also never know whether they have had COVID-19 and have been in the workplace in close contact with others whilst they have been infectious. Given there are no COVID-19 restrictions in place on self-isolation, your employees may not be staying at home in their own time when they have COVID-19 and so in theory in most cases there is no greater risk of catching or spreading the virus at work.

Way before COVID-19 there were existing laws to ensure employers maintain a healthy & safe workplace. Some of those laws remain particularly relevant when talking about COVID-19 and employers should:

- Make sure your workplace provides sufficient ventilation.

- Ensure that you have adequate toilet and hand washing facilities.

- Maintain a clean workplace to reduce the risk of infection and it’s especially important to clean communal areas and surfaces that people touch frequently.

Staff can be supported to maintain a clean working environment by providing them with cleaning products, soap, and hot water, and/or sanitiser. Provision of hand sanitiser particularly during winter months is advisable.

What happens when an employee reports they have COVID-19?

If an employee has tested for COVID-19 and is well enough to work, there is no reason for them not to continue at work.

In the event someone does not feel well enough to come to work and has tested positive for COVID-19 this should be currently treated the same way as any other illness. Any pay for time off ill will depend on whether the person qualifies for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and whether you pay any sick pay in addition to SSP.

What don’t you have to do?

Unless the work you carry out means that employees either directly through their work, for example in researching the virus in laboratories OR due to their work activity, such as health and social care workers care for infectious patients, then you no longer are required to carry out a risk assessment specifically in relation to COVID-19. It is advisable though to consider whether risks associated with COVID-19 should be considered in your general risk assessments, depending on the type of work your employees carry out.

Employees do not need to wear masks in the workplace unless there are specific requirements for them to do so i.e., in some healthcare settings. Employees may choose to wear a mask or face covering at work. Although masks and face coverings are primarily worn to protect others, because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main routes of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, they may also provide some limited protection to the wearer.

What about people who are classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’?

The success of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination programme has meant that the requirement for shielding and identifying people as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) is no longer necessary.

Most people who were part of this patient cohort are no longer at substantially greater risk than the general population and are advised to follow the same guidance as everyone else on staying safe and preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, as well as any further advice received from their healthcare professional.

However, there remains a smaller number of people whose weakened immune system means they may be at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, despite vaccination.

Enhanced protection measures, such as those offered by specific treatments or additional vaccinations alongside other protective behaviours, may benefit these individuals:

  • Down’s syndrome, or another chromosomal disorder that affects their immune system
  • certain types of cancer or have received treatment for certain types of cancer
  • sickle cell disease
  • certain conditions affecting their blood
  • chronic kidney disease (CKD) stage 4 or 5
  • severe liver disease
  • had an organ transplant
  • certain autoimmune or inflammatory conditions (such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease)
  • HIV or AIDS and have a weakened immune system
  • a condition affecting their immune system
  • a condition affecting the brain or nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, motor neurone disease, myasthenia gravis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or certain types of dementia
  • certain lung conditions or treatments for lung conditions

These individuals should protect themselves as far as possible by ensuring they have had all of the vaccines they are eligible to receive and continue to follow any condition-specific advice they may have been given by their specialist.

They may also be advised to try to avoid contact with people who have symptoms of COVID-19 or other respiratory infections. Where possible and where the work allows, working from home may support people with these conditions but in many cases working from home might not be an option. Employers should have conversations with their employees in this case and discuss any adjustments they might be able to make to reduce any risks to them.

In England, patients eligible for COVID-19 treatments can access free tests from the government.

It is possible that employees who have one of the above conditions may also be considered to be disabled as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. Where this might be the case consider taking advice from an HR professional on the best away to support the employee in the longer term.

COVID-19 seems here to stay for now and perhaps difficult for employers to navigate.

If you need help with a COVID-19 or other absence/health query – get in touch to find out how we can support you info@thehrbranch.co.uk 01522 275105