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COVID-19: Work from home if you can – updated advice for employers

  • Market Insight 10 December 2021 10 December 2021
  • UK & Europe

  • Coronavirus

The government has announced that England will move to Plan B in response to the risks of the Omicron variant. For employers in England, this means that from Monday 13 December office workers who can work from home should do so. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “Go to work if you must, but work from home if you can.”

COVID-19: Work from home if you can – updated advice for employers

The governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had already advised people to work from home if possible, because of the Omicron variant. In Scotland, people should work from home where possible until at least the middle of January 2022.

Do office workers have to work from home?

Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go into work - for example, to access equipment necessary for their role or where their role must be completed in person. The ‘Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread’ guidance has been updated to reflect the latest guidance in England.

The government acknowledges that in-person working will be necessary in some cases to ‘continue the effective and accessible delivery of some public services and private industries.’ Workers are being advised that if they need to continue to go into work, they should consider taking lateral flow tests regularly to manage their own risk and the risk to others.

Employers will need to consider their approach to the ‘work from home if you can’ guidance and communicate it to workers ahead of Monday 13 December 2021. For example, employers will need to consider which, if any, office workers are in roles which must be completed in person. The government guidance also recognises that employers will need to consider whether home working is appropriate for workers facing mental or physical health difficulties, or those with a particularly challenging home working environment.

The work from home guidance is guidance and not law so people will not be committing an offence by coming into the office when they could have worked from home, but employers need to keep in mind their health and safety obligations. Employers should also consider what processes they will put in place for employees to work from the office e.g. will employees need to explain why they need to work from the office or will it be left to their discretion.

Are any changes needed to ensure a safe place of work?

The guidance for England on Working safely during coronavirus (the ‘Working Safely’ guidance) will be updated shortly to include more information on the changes to restrictions that have been introduced in response to the Omicron variant. Employers should check the guidance for more information about these changes and whether any tighter workplace health and safety recommendations are included when it is updated. Separate guidance applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All employers have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business. The way to do this is to carry out a health and safety risk assessment, including the risk of COVID-19, and to take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified. Employers should consider the relevant guidance when preparing and updating their health and safety risk assessments and putting in place suitable steps to mitigate the risks.

The Working Safely guidance currently sets out a range of mitigations employers should consider including:

  • improving ventilation
  • ensuring that staff and customers who are unwell do not attend the workplace
  • providing hand sanitiser to enable staff and customers to clean their hands more frequently, and cleaning surfaces that people touch regularly
  • communicating to staff and customers the measures you have put in place.

Settings in which face coverings are required must display signage or take other measures to ensure customers are aware of the requirement to wear a face covering on their premises where there is no applicable exemption or reasonable excuse.

Businesses are also encouraged to continue displaying NHS QR codes for attendees wishing to check in using the NHS COVID-19 app so they are alerted if there’s an outbreak and can take action to protect others.

What are the latest rules on self-isolation?

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 the 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:

  • Any workers displaying COVID-19 symptoms must self-isolate and get a COVID-19 test.
  • The exemptions to self-isolation do not apply to close contacts of confirmed or suspected Omicron cases, who are also excluded from participating in daily contact testing as an alternative to self-isolation for contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases who are not otherwise exempt.
  • If workers are a close contact of someone who is displaying COVID-19 symptoms or who has tested positive (but not of someone who has been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant) and they are exempt from self-isolation, then they may be able to attend the workplace - but:
    • this will depend on the particular circumstances of their employer and workplace: the guidance gives as an example the health and social care sector where employers may require workers to take additional precautions.

Workers must:

  • take a PCR test
  • wear a face covering in enclosed spaces
  • limit close contact with people outside their household - especially in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, and
  • limit contact with anyone who has an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk of severe illness if infected with COVID-19.

This requirement is likely to restrict the ability of many workers who are close contacts to attend the workplace.

  • Employers should:
    • support workers who are required to self-isolate
    • advise workers who have tested positive to identify close contacts
    • continue targeted asymptomatic testing in high-risk workplaces
    • improve ventilation
    • display an NHS QR code (and have a system for non-digital users) to enable individuals to be notified if they have been exposed to COVID-19 - although it is no longer a legal requirement to collect contact details for NHS Test and Trace, the guidance encourages employers to display a QR code and advises them to keep a record of all staff working on their premises, including shift times, dates and contact details.

Practical point

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.

Do people need to wear face coverings at work?

From 10 December, face coverings will be required by law in most indoor settings. Staff within these settings, except some transport workers, are required to wear face coverings when they are in a part that is open to the public. In these settings, employers are prohibited from asking their workers to remove a face covering. 

The advice for England is that in indoor settings where a face covering is not legally required, people should still continue to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where they may come into contact with other people they do not normally meet.

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 still choose to ask their staff or customers to wear a face covering, even if this 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. People are allowed to remove a face covering to communicate with people who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and clear sound.

In Scotland, it is mandatory to wear a face covering in specified settings: Coronavirus: face coverings and masks.


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