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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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.