With a rise in cases as winter approaches we thought it would be a good time to check in with Kieran O’Donoghue, HR Expert at HR Champions, on how you should be handling Covid with your team.
Their HR and Employment Law helpline has proven to be quite a reliable bellwether over the years of current and imminent issues that employers are facing. Over the last week, the most consistent topic for support calls has been Covid. A number of clients from a variety of industries have had a rise in absences with Covid cited as the cause.
The ONS has stopped reporting on Covid cases since March this year but the Government has responded to the obvious need in making health information available to the general public; particularly after the high number of flu cases last year. At the end of September 2023, the UK Health Security Agency launched the Covid and flu Dashboard for England.
Judging by the number of queries HR Champions have received on this topic recently, the timing for the launch of the new dashboard couldn’t be better. Indeed, the dashboard reports an increase in Covid cases of 29% in the last couple of weeks.
Kieran’s HR Guidance
With a rise in Covid cases practically an inevitability, we thought it a good idea to recap on employer responsibilities regarding the disease. Now that most of the country has been vaccinated, Covid doesn’t hold the ‘status’ it once did so it’s important that employers are aware of the position as there may actually be a tendency to overreact.
Firstly, as in all cases regarding health and wellbeing, the overriding consideration is the employer’s duty of care. We must be mindful of our responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of our employees and other people who may be affected by our work activities. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.
Guidance remains unchanged in that people who test positive or who have Covid symptoms should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 5 days. They should also avoid contact with those that are higher risk from Covid for 10 days. This period starts the day after a positive test or when symptoms began.
Covid is notorious in that it affects people in different ways. Some people only suffer mild symptoms whilst others can feel quite poorly. If an employee has the option to work from home then our recommendation is that they can do so if they are genuinely well enough. If an employee is too ill to work for sustained periods or, say, to attend a meeting on Zoom or Teams, then they should declare themselves as sick and should not work.
This goes for all illnesses. Sickness absence is there to enable the ill to rest and recover. Working whilst not well enough to do so may only exacerbate the condition or prolong it. Indeed, some studies suggest that cases of Long-Covid are higher where infected individuals haven’t rested.
If an employee with Covid works in an environment where home-working isn’t an option, in a factory or on a construction site for example, and that person feels well enough to work, then the employer should have a stance that they stick to consistently. This might include allowing them into work whilst taking suitable precautions such as alerting all other workers and wearing a mask.
With the continuing tough economic climate, employees are likely to want to avoid being off sick as they will miss out on pay. They may be however, potentially putting their colleagues, customers, and your business continuity at risk. On the other hand, employers may struggle if they are short staffed.
Where there are vulnerable individuals in the workplace and cases of Covid are known, the vulnerable could be offered home working where possible or offered a segregated area to work in. Vulnerable individuals should also be taking their own measures.
Covid remains a highly transmissible disease that poses a significant risk to business continuity when it is identified in the workplace. To summarise, our advice therefore is:
- If a person has Covid symptoms or tests positive, they should work from home where this is possible to act in line with current Government guidance and for at least the 5-day period.
- If an infected employee’s position is one where they are able to work from home, but they are too ill to work, then again, they should be on sick leave. Their absence should be used to rest and recuperate.
- If the infected employee’s job is one where they are not able to work from home, but they feel well enough to work then they can come into work should their employers policy allow it.
- Employers who allow Covid positive individuals into the workplace potentially put their colleagues at risk (particularly the vulnerable which includes those who are pregnant) and expose themselves to having more employees being sick.
In terms of sick pay, Covid is now treated in the same way as any other sick absence and the normal sick pay rules apply. This includes waiting days prior to SSP being activated, but of course company sick pay, where it is paid, will have different rules depending on the employer.
This should cover most scenarios but if you have situation that isn’t covered here, contact HR Champions directly on 01452 331331 or via email e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org