Plan B | Why working from home is only part of the solution

Written on 9 December 2021

Boris Johnson has confirmed the move to ‘Plan B’ in England in a bid to slow the “extraordinary” spread of the new Omicron variant.

Mandatory face covering rules will be reintroduced in most indoor settings from Friday 10 December and COVID passports will be required in large crowded venues from Wednesday 15 December. Most relevant to the workplace, the work from home advice will be reinstated from Monday 13 December, if people’s jobs allow.

But is this the sea change it seems?

Working from home is back – but what about those who can’t?

The instruction to work from home (WFH) has remained in place in other parts of the UK for some time. Even in England, knowing that COVID remains a risk and with businesses anticipating further restrictions, not everybody has rushed back to the office.

So, while the media commotion around ‘Plan B’ seems to suggest a significant change in direction, in reality, not much has changed. Indeed, only a small proportion of people will be impacted by the WFH U-turn, namely those in England who can work from home and have recently headed back to the office, who will now need to pack up their desks once more.

The danger, of course, is that employers become hyper-focused on the return of the WFH advice, and if it doesn’t apply to their workers, believe there is nothing more to be done. Indeed, according to Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services at WorkNest, “just saying ‘work from home’ over-simplifies the issue”.

“There are millions of people outside of sectors like professional services who have remained at work throughout all of this and will continue to do so now”, says Nick. “Employers must not forget these individuals and should focus on mitigation measures to keep people safe in the workplace. After all, these are the people most at risk.”

From a health and safety perspective, this may include stricter social distancing measures, enforcing the wearing of face coverings unless medically exempt, and being more stringent about hand hygiene. From an HR perspective, employers may want to consider testing regimes and asking people to take more regular lateral flow tests.

Nick says: “People are used to working from home by now, so that shouldn’t be a huge transition for businesses or their staff. Instead, focus on the people who still have to go to work and what you can do to mitigate the risk of an outbreak.”

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Minimising the risk of an outbreak

“This is what employers are really concerned about”, says James Tamm, Director of Legal Services at WorkNest. “Having 20 to 30 per cent of your workforce wiped out by the need to self-isolate following a COVID outbreak is potentially disastrous. For sectors like retail and manufacturing, this is their busiest month of the year, and it doesn’t help that options to work from home in these sectors are scarce.

“Therefore, it’s about what you can do to minimise this risk and stop people contracting COVID in the first place.”

So what measures do businesses need to take beyond what they did a month ago? From a legal perspective, not much has changed, says Oliver Williams, Regional Health & Safety Manager at WorkNest. “It’s about taking additional precautions, reviewing your risk assessments and being proactive”, he explains.

“With the introduction of the Omicron variant, the risk profile within the workplace has potentially changed; nobody quite knows how transmissible it is or how ill it makes people, so it’s become riskier. All the measures employers and their staff have become well accustomed to should really be dusted off.

“While Plan B doesn’t require employers to do these things, they are arguably proportionate now, and employers still have a duty under health and safety law to take all ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to keep people safe.”

All of this will help to prevent employers from losing large chunks of their workforce. In practical terms, Oliver says it’s essential that businesses not only look to minimise contact between people but that they can also identify contacts should someone test positive. “This caused havoc for businesses last year”, he recalls, “as many weren’t able to define who close contacts were and therefore had to err on the side of caution by sending more people home.

“By having people work with a select few others in fixed teams, staggering start and finish times, and strictly enforcing social distancing, any outbreak will affect a handful of people rather than wiping out an entire workforce this side of Christmas.”

With Christmas party season upon us, and with these gathering arguably the most likely cause of outbreaks this winter, businesses will need to consider their plans carefully and keep safety in mind.

Nick Wilson explains: “At the moment, Christmas parties may still go ahead as long as they are legally permitted. Given the ongoing risk, many employers will have opted for smaller gatherings at restaurants, etc. as organised by separate divisions, and so it would be sensible for the ‘main’ organiser of the event to encourage the taking of LFTs and social distancing if you do decide to go ahead. Of course, you should also comply with any rules in place at the venue regarding masks and any passports that are required.”

Shifting the rules around self-isolation

The rules surrounding self-isolation have also changed under Plan B.

Previously, the government announced that (unlike close contacts of other variants) close contacts of Omicron cases would need to self-isolate. However, with very few labs set up to actually identify what strain of the virus people have been exposed to, the rules have changed. Now, close contacts must take daily lateral flow tests and, if they test negative, can still go out and about, including to work.

Much like the reinstated work from home advice, James Tamm says the changes to self-isolation rules make little tangible difference. “In practical terms, this doesn’t change much because it’s arguable how many people were having to self-isolate as a contact under those circumstances anyway”, he says.

The issue, of course, is that now close contacts of Omicron cases don’t need to self-isolate, employers run the risk of allowing potentially infectious people in the workplace.

James explains: “If an employee rang up and said that a member of their household has contracted COVID, according to the rules, they can still come into work. But is this really a wise idea, given you’ll be running a significant risk that they may have the virus and spread it? It’s a bit of a catch 22, as if you tell someone not to come in in those circumstances, they will be entitled to full pay, something many businesses will struggle to afford.

“In those circumstances, it might be better to insist on daily negative tests before people turn up.”

Balancing safety and business needs

Ultimately, employers have the difficult job of balancing health and safety against the needs of the business. That said, in many cases, both considerations produce the same answer.

For example, keeping potentially infectious people away from work prevents harm to others and also reduces the risk of business shutdowns – though again, this is contingent on being able to afford to pay staff to stay away.

James Tamm says: “At the end of the day, employers have a business to run and want to keep working as productively as possible at this time of year. With this in mind, heed the advice to have people work from home if they can, but don’t neglect the chunk of the workforce who can’t – those are the ones at greatest risk and who also pose the greatest risk to business continuity.

“With an uncertain few months ahead, it’s important to get ahead of things rather than waiting for government announcements so that you’re prepared for any eventuality.”

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