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Returning to the Workplace: Updated Guidance

On 19th July we moved to Step 4 of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. There are two key changes for businesses. Firstly, the government is no longer advising people to work from home. Consequently, employers can start to plan a return to the workplace.  The government has recommended a gradual return over the summer and working arrangements that meet both the needs of the individual and the business. The timing and phasing of employees’ return should be discussed and agreed. Secondly, businesses do not need to implement social distancing in their workplace or venue and customers and employees do not need to social distance from people they do not live with.

People will be expected (although this is voluntary) to still cover their faces in crowded and enclosed indoor areas, such as public transport and shops. Some airlines and transport networks (for example Transport for London) and retailers have also indicated that they will still require face coverings.

The Working Safely During Coronavirus (Covid-19) guidance has been published. It offers advice for safe working in a range of settings including offices, factories, laboratories, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, construction, events and retail.

In this updated guidance, a few restrictions remain in place including:

  • The need to self-isolate if someone tests positive for coronavirus (unless exempt).
  • The need to self-isolate for those in close contact with someone who tests positive until 16th August (unless exempt). After that date under-18s and those who have received a second COVID-19 vaccination at least 10 days before the contact no longer need to isolate.
  • Border restrictions remain in place, depending on the status of the departure country.
The government is now advising clinically extremely vulnerable people, as a minimum, to follow the same guidance as everyone else. However, employers still have a legal responsibility to protect their employees from risks to their health and safety. Employers are encouraged to talk to any clinically extremely vulnerable workers returning to their workplace, so they can explain the measures being taken to ensure they can work safely.

If an employee requires support to work at home or in the workplace that are beyond standard reasonable adjustments, they can apply for funding from Access to Work. Access to Work will prioritise applications from disabled people who are in the clinically extremely vulnerable group.  Occupational Health can provide a range of physical and mental health support and advice for employees who have been identified as extremely clinically vulnerable.

Protecting People who are Extremely Clinically Vulnerable from COVID-19
Medwyn Occupational Health would recommend a more cautious approach for extremely clinically vulnerable employees who have:

  • not been vaccinated
  • been vaccinated whilst prescribed immunosuppressant medication
  • received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

In these latter two categories, we have anecdotally seen evidence of a limited protective response to the vaccination.  Additionally, the latest Beta variant may be more resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine compared to the Pfizer vaccine.

Pregnant women 
Pregnant women should continue to be referred to occupational health for a Clinical COVID-19 Risk Assessment at 28 weeks.

Priority Actions
The government has recommended some priority actions for businesses in order to manage risk and returning employees to the workplace safely and with confidence:

  1. Health and Safety Risk Assessment

As businesses have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business, the guidance recommends that employers carry out a health and safety risk assessment, including the risk of COVID-19 and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified. COVID-19 is a workplace hazard and should be managed in the same way as other workplace hazards. By law, businesses must not allow a self-isolating employee to come to work (unless exempt). Businesses should also consider reasonable adjustments required for employees and customers with disabilities.

  1. Adequate Ventilation

The main way of spreading COVID-19 is through close contact with an infected person. Particles (droplets and aerosols) containing the virus that causes COVID-19 can be released when someone with COVID-19 breathes, speaks, sneezes or coughs. These particles can then be breathed in by another person. As the rate of COVID-19 infection remains high, businesses should ensure there is a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces. This can be natural ventilation through opening windows and doors, mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, or a combination of both. The HSE website provides useful advice on air conditioning and ventilation.

  1. Regular Cleaning

Employees and customers should be encouraged to use hand sanitiser and to clean their hands frequently. It is essential to maintain regular cleaning of surfaces, particularly surfaces that people touch regularly.

  1. Self-Isolation for Employees

Unless exempt, employees should self-isolate if they or someone in their household has a persistent cough, a high temperature or has lost their sense of taste or smell. They must also self-isolate if they or a close contact has had a positive COVID-19 result, or if they have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace. If you know that an employee is self-isolating, it is an offence to allow them to come to work.

  1. Workplace Check In

Businesses are no longer legally required to collect the contact details of visitors, customers or contractors, however, doing so will support NHS Test and Trace to contact those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 so that they can book a test. You can enable people to check in to your venue by displaying an NHS QR code poster. You do not need to ask people to check-in or turn people away if they refuse. If you choose to display a QR code, you should also have a system in place to record contact details for people who want to check in but do not have the app.

  1. Communicate and Train

It remains important to keep your employees, visitors and contractors up-to-date on how your business is using and updating safety measures.

The government is now advising clinically extremely vulnerable people, as a minimum, to follow the same guidance as everyone else. However, employers still have a legal responsibility to protect their employees from risks to their health and safety. Employers are encouraged to talk to any clinically extremely vulnerable workers returning to their workplace, so they can explain the measures being taken to ensure they can work safely.
If an employee requires support to work at home or in the workplace that are beyond standard reasonable adjustments, they can apply for Access to Work. Access to Work will prioritise applications from disabled people who are in the clinically extremely vulnerable group.  Occupational Health can provide a range of physical and mental health support and advice for employees who have been identified as extremely clinically vulnerable.

Wellbeing and Mental Health
As employees return to the workplace, some may have mixed feelings about the new normal, feel anxious about the risk of COVID-19 – in the workplace and during their commute and how their employer will be protecting them.  Mental health and wellbeing support is a key principle of a good return to work. Employers should identify any concerns and obstacles that may prevent or delay an employee’s return to work. Occupational Health can be key in providing advice and guidance to ensure that employees feel confident about their return.

Hybrid Working
A wide range of research, including a YouGov survey and CIPD research, show that after the pandemic the majority of workers want to continue to work from home at least some of the time. This provides businesses with new opportunities for re-configuring and adapting the workplace to create new ways of working and supporting a positive work-life balance. A hybrid working policy can be useful to help to set the ground rules for employees working within this model.

Workers Exempt From Self-Isolation
The government has created a framework for exemption for some critical workers. The exemption only applies to some fully vaccinated workers employed in a number of key industries. The government has stated that it is not a ‘blanket exemption’ for all workers in a sector but applies to named employees in specifically approved workplaces who have had their final vaccine dose at least 14 days ago. Once approved, workers contacted by test and trace or the NHS app will need a negative PCR test and must do daily lateral flow tests for 10 days.

The guidance lists 16 sectors: energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence outputs, and local government.  Those workers identified as close contacts of a positive case of the virus should only go to work if their absence would lead to the ‘loss or compromise’ of ‘critical elements of national infrastructure’. Any business which believes its workers should be exempt are requested to contact the relevant government department.

Those covered will be able to travel to work and do their jobs after a negative daily test but must remain at home otherwise and go straight into quarantine if they receive a positive result.

It is essential that businesses adhere to their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to keep all staff and clients safe.  The new guidance places a significant degree of responsibility on employers to prove that they have implemented and maintained the updated government guidance regarding precautions to manage the risk of COVID-19. Occupational Health works in collaboration with organisations to manage this risk, taking into account employees with underlying health conditions and their workplace environment and activities, alongside a business’s legal obligations.

How Medwyn Occupational Health can help

  • Provide best practice advice and guidance to managers
  • The development of policies and procedures
  • Health risk assessments
  • Supporting employees with pre-existing or new health issues, or those with difficulties in recovering from COVID-19.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you would like to learn more about how we can help your organisation.

 

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