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Why the pingdemic will continue to create problems for manufacturers

With almost 700,000 people forced to self-isolate, all sectors have felt the effects of the recent ‘pingdemic’, and the manufacturing industry has been no exception. UK car production has been particularly badly impacted by staffing shortages, with trade bodies having called for urgent assistance to exempt staff pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app.

Speaking to manufacturers on a daily basis, we’re aware of the chaos this is causing to operations. We’re also hearing stories of ‘false pings’, whereby phones being stored in close proximity, for example in employees’ lockers, has purportedly resulted in people receiving alerts by mistake.

In this article, we take a closer look at the problem, answer common questions, and explain why, despite imminent rule changes, the pingdemic is likely to present ongoing challenges for manufacturers for months to come.

What’s the problem?

For manufacturers, pingdemic-related absences have greatly impacted production and hampered the sector’s recovery. In fact, Unite has called for the government to urgently rethink its decision not to exempt the automotive and steel sectors from self-isolation rules, warning that there may be long-term damage.

As well as being generally low-staffed, in many cases, critical workers such as those who are trained to operate certain machinery are forced to self-isolate and there is nobody else who can competently step in in their absence. Indeed, the manufacturing skills gap in the UK has been well-documented, and with post-Brexit labour shortages exacerbating the problem even further, the pingdemic couldn’t have come at a worse time.

As with any kind of absence, this additional strain on already stretched teams will create other issues and incur other costs. There’s the potential expense of arranging agency cover, as well as the knock-on effect on morale as others are required to pick up the slack.

A less obvious problem, perhaps, is the increased exposure to safety risks; after all, absences are likely to lead to less supervision, key responsibilities not being undertaken, and individuals finding themselves performing unfamiliar tasks.

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Health and safety

While not a huge consideration for lower-risk sectors, manufacturers will need to be particularly mindful of the health and safety consequences arising from pingdemic-related staff shortfalls.

Do you have adequate first aid cover? Are machine checks still being carried out? As employees are taken out of action by the app, employers must resist the urge for untrained staff to use machinery or take on other responsibilities that they are not properly trained for.

For example, you may have an employee who is responsible for checking a machine before each shift. They are a ‘single point of failure’ – a part of a system that, if removed, will stop the entire system from working. Given the possibility that they may be pinged, now is the time to identify these individuals and what exactly they do for you so that you’re not caught short.

Do you have sufficient fork lift truck coverage? Do you have multiple people trained to do machine checks, supervise, etc.? Who unlocks your fire doors in the morning? An attitude of ‘we just need to get the work done by any means possible’ could be incredibly dangerous, so forward planning is essential.

To minimise disruption and risk, we recommend creating a checklist of daily tasks that need to be carried out, who usually performs them, and who could step in in their absence. This also emphasises the importance of regularly reviewing training needs from an organisational level so that your cover is always seamless. Once you know where your weak spots are, you can then devise a wider training plan to plug these gaps.

Employment law

Wouldn’t it just be easier to have employees disable the app at work to prevent pingdemic disruption?

As you can imagine, this is one of the most common questions manufacturers, and indeed employers across all sectors, are asking our Employment Law Team right now.

In short, we wouldn’t recommend doing so, particularly as the government has recently emphasised the importance of self-isolating when notified by the app or contacted by Test and Trace. That said, the NHS identifies some situations where it may be appropriate to pause contact tracing.

Aside from going against current government advice, requiring the app to be turned off could result in reputational issues if employees feel that the risk to their health and safety isn’t being appropriately managed.

If an employee is pinged by the app, do they have to avoid coming to work? Or can we ask them to ignore it?

While employees must self-isolate if contacted by NHS Test and Trace, they do not legally have to self-isolate following a ping. However, given you will be allowing a potentially infectious person to enter the workplace, you could risk an outbreak. As well as putting people’s health at risk, this is counter-productive as it could lead to bigger problems, including disputes and mass absences.

Therefore, it’s best to encourage staff to follow any notifications and/or work from home if possible – though admittedly this option will be limited for manufacturers.

Pingdemic aside, we’re really struggling with staff shortages in general. How can we overcome this?

This is a pervasive issue for manufacturers and the pingdemic has just added salt to the wound. If you’re not in a position to pay higher salaries, we advise looking at benefits, holidays and time in lieu to overcome recruitment and retention challenges.

An ongoing issue?

In response to the uproar from both businesses and individuals, updates were recently made to the NHS COVID-19 app, and alerts have since dropped by 43%. Meanwhile, changes to the rules which will exempt double-jabbed individuals from self-isolating (provided they produce a negative PCR test) are already filtering through the UK (7 August in Wales, 9 August in Scotland and 16 August in England).

So, is this the end of the problem for manufacturers? In a word, no. While in theory it will reduce the number of staff self-isolating, employers will now face a potentially more complex problem: confirming whether employees have in fact been double jabbed or not. There are two ways this may cause issues in the months ahead.

First, you may have employees who are pinged by the app but who wish to come into work so that their pay isn’t penalised. They may tell you they are double-jabbed, but how do you prove this? If they are unwilling to provide evidence, do you just take their word for it and allow them to work anyway, potentially exposing others to the virus?

On the flip side, you may have employees who seek to exploit the pingdemic for some extra time off, so tell you that they are not double-jabbed and therefore need to stay off work. In this scenario, whilst it is impossible to prove that someone hasn’t been vaccinated, it could be that employers may look to take disciplinary action against any employee who claims that they are required to self-isolate as a result of not being double vaccinated if this is subsequently proven to be untrue or evidence comes to light of them being ‘out and about’ during this period.

Asking employees for proof of their vaccination status is a tricky issue and one that we know has been on employers’ minds long before the pingdemic occurred for the sake of workplace safety in general.

Our stance up until this point, in the context of employer’s monitoring vaccination status generally, has been that employers can ask but employees can refuse. However, whilst still legally untested and uncertain, in the limited context of seeking to ascertain double vaccination status (and a negative PCR test) for employees who would otherwise be required to self-isolate, there may be more scope for employers to require this proof. 

This does then raise tricky and, again, untested questions as to what can be done should an employee refuse to provide this proof, our initial thoughts being that an employer could refuse to allow their attendance at the workplace for the 10 day self-isolation period in the interests of protecting the health and safety of others within the workplace. The question is then what pay (full pay or SSP), if any, the individual would be due. We would hope to receive clarity on this issue as the new regime comes into play.

As always, we’re monitoring the situation closely and would be happy to advise you on your specific situation.

Solve your self-isolation and safety challenges

Unsure how to manage self-isolating staff? Got a query on employee vaccination and testing? Or need support with your post-lockdown safety measures?

To find out how Ellis Whittam can help you to minimise workforce disruption, maximise productivity and continue to operate safely and compliantly, call 0345 226 8393 to discuss your specific situation with our Employment Law and Health & Safety experts. Alternatively, request your free consultation using the button below.

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