UK & Europe
In this update, we consider recent changes, that have been introduced in England and Scotland in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, which will impact on the workplace.
In response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, the UK Health Security Agency has updated its Guidance: NHS Test and Trace in the workplace for England and revised rules on self-isolation for close contacts of Omicron cases. The same rules on self-isolation apply to contacts of suspected or confirmed Omicron variant cases in Scotland.
The key issues for employers are:
This requirement is likely to restrict the ability of many workers who are close contacts to attend the workplace.
In many cases, workers who have been categorised previously as exempt from self-isolation will now be required to self-isolate if they are a close contact.
If an individual who has to self-isolate cannot work from home then, provided they meet the eligibility criteria, they may receive Statutory Sick Pay.
On 30 November 2021, updated guidance and regulations on wearing face coverings came into force in England. The new requirements provide that:
Staff may choose to wear a face covering in the workplace, even if this is not required, and employers should ensure they are supported to do so.
Employers can choose to ask their staff or customers to wear a face covering, even if this is not legally required. When deciding whether to do this, employers need to consider the reasonable adjustments needed for staff and customers with disabilities, as well as their other obligations to employees and customers, including under health and safety and equality legislation.
The guidance on Working safely during coronavirus will be updated shortly to include more information on the changes to restrictions that have been introduced in response to the Omicron variant.
In Scotland, it is already mandatory to wear a face covering in specified settings: Coronavirus: face coverings and masks.
In response to the Omicron variant, the Scottish Health Secretary advised people to take precautionary measures to minimise the risk of spreading infection, including working from home where possible. This advice was also given in the First Minister's statement on 30 November 2021.
The position is different in England, where employees are not currently being advised to work from home. However the government’s COVID-19 Response: Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 sets out contingency plans (Plan B), in the event that measures are needed to prevent unsustainable pressure on the National Health Service, which include asking people to work from home if they can, for a limited period.
The House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper, Flexible working: Remote and hybrid work, which reviews the current law and guidance on flexible working and considers the impact the pandemic has had on working patterns and the future of flexible work. In addition to setting out the benefits and challenges of flexible working, including impacts on costs and inequalities, the briefing considers potential tensions around employers wanting a return to office-based work while their employees want to continue remote working. It also looks at possible reforms, including flexible working as a day one right and the right to disconnect from work during non-working hours.
The government's Consultation: Making flexible working the default has now closed and their response is awaited.