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How the UK Gov's 'Living With Covid' Plan Will Affect HR

2022 will probably be remembered, for better or for worse, as the year that widespread domestic COVID-19 restrictions came to an end across the country.

In February 2022, the UK Government announced it’s ‘Living With Covid’ plan: a strategy to pivot the UK’s response to the virus away from restrictions and towards a more laissez faire approach to pandemic management.

The plan has some big implications for organisations and human resources professionals across the country, potentially fundamentally affecting many aspects of HR.

Here’s some more information about the UK Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan and how it will affect HR departments.


What is the 'Living with Covid' plan?

The Living with Covid plan is a policy that was created by the UK Government to set out how it plans to respond to COVID-19 over the longer term. It mainly outlines how domestic restrictions will be removed over the course of a few months.

As health is a devolved matter, the policy only applies to England. The Devolved Administrations, like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for setting their own health policies, so they are expected to set out their own guidance separately. 

In the ‘COVID-19 Response: Living with COVID-19’ whitepaper, the Government sets out four key principles of its long term response to the virus, which informs its response to the virus:

  1. Living with COVID-19 rather than suppressing it. Most restrictions are removed. Safer behaviours are encouraged through advice, like similar respiratory illnesses.
  1.  Protecting people most vulnerable to COVID-19. Vaccinations are offered based on Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, and targeted testing to vulnerable people.
  1.  Ongoing surveillance of the virus. Infection rates and variants of concern are monitored and contingency planning continues to take place.
  2. Securing innovations and opportunities. Building on the investment in technology that was facilitated by the pandemic.

Here’s the key points that the document sets out about the Government’s approach to COVID-19 in the coming months, and longer-term:

From 24th February 2022:

  • The legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test will be removed.
  • People will still be encouraged to stay at home and away from vulnerable people however. Positive people are encouraged to take a Lateral Flow Test (LFTs) 5 days after their first positive test, followed by another the next day. If both are negative, they can return to their normal routine.
  • Fully vaccinated close contacts of COVID cases and those under 18 years old do not need to test continuously for 7 days.
  • Close contacts who are not fully vaccinated will not have to self isolate
  • Self isolation fund payments will be stopped
  • National funding for practical support will be stopped
  • Medicine delivery service will stopped
  • The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 3) Regulations act will be revoked.

From 24th March 2022: 

  • Provisions for COVID-19 within Statutory Sick Pay and Employment and Support Allowance regulations will be stopped.

From 1st April 2022:

Free testing for the vast majority of people living in England will end. Tests will be available for old people and vulnerable groups.

What does the 'Living with Covid' plan mean for HR?

As a HR professional, responsible for managing your company’s response to COVID when it comes to personnel, your first reaction to the ‘Living with Covid’ plan is likely to be expletive ridden.

 A lot of HR employees widely consider it to be the Government passing the responsibility of managing the pandemic at work onto the ever increasing to-do lists of HR professionals.

It’s hard not to sympathise with that interpretation. After all, there’s no denying that the Living with Covid plan certainly increases the responsibilities placed on to HR in a company, and it means that they will now be forced to make difficult decisions about the health of their employees on their own, without much in the way of guidance or support to rely on.

Here are the most obvious ways that the UK Government’s Living With Covid’ Plan will affect HR:

1. It will mean that offices begin to seem more ‘normal’ again...

We’ve been so used to the pandemic that we take a whole slew of actions for granted that would have been considered quite extreme before the pandemic – wearing facemasks when around strangers, washing and sanitizing our hands everytime we touch something communal, limiting the amount of people we come into contact with etc.

In the workplace, we’ve had to adapt to those actions too and masks, open windows and one way systems have become a key part of our office lives. With the removal of the final COVID-19 restrictions in April, we’re about to experience the closest we’ve come to ‘normal’ life in the office.  

But whilst things on the surface might look normal on the surface, mentally and emotionally, we’re going back to a workplace that’s fundamentally changed over the course of two and a half long years. Widespread remote working has rendered the office irrelevant to most roles, people have rediscovered the need for firm boundaries between work and domestic life, and a lot of people are personally quite scarred by their experience of living through a devastating pandemic.

With the removal of all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, it’s likely that we’ll be returning to a workplace that’s familiar in some respects, but very different in others. This could present a range of mental health related problems amongst employees that HR will need to prepare themselves to address.


2. .. but it places ultimately responsible for workplace COVID decisions on HR and senior management

Leading up to this point, the response to COVID-19 was generally informed and dictated by medical professionals who had the specialist public health knowledge to be able to make informed decisions.

 The removal of Government restrictions completely upends this convention though and means that HR employees are now expected to be responsible for making decisions in the workplace related to COVID-19, guided by non legally-binding advice.This could cause a headache for HR professionals who are now expected to make very difficult workplace decisions with not much support from the Government.

With the removal of the last restrictions, the key task of HR professionals now is the need to balance productivity and normal business operations and the very valid health and safety concerns that employees have about returning to the office in the middle of a pandemic – particularly if they are vulnerable.

Employers still have a duty of care towards employees and need to be mindful of physical and mental health risks of forcing employees into an office environment that they feel is unsafe. So, just because the legal COVID-19 restrictions have been 

In situations like this, caution generally pays off in the long term. By keeping COVID-19 measures in place, like improved ventilation, remote working and masks when moving about the office, you can help to put the minds of your employees at rest and make the workplace a more inviting place to come into.

3. You won’t legally have to consider COVID-19 in risk assessments

From the 1st April 2022, employers will no longer be explicitly expected to consider COVID-19 in workplace risk assessments.

That said, just because you’re no longer legally required to do it, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a benefit in continuing to do it. The threat from COVID-19 is still very real and it is still disrupting workplaces up and down the country.

To not consider the potential effect of COVID-19 in your workplace and to not devise methods to mitigate is short-sighted at best. Whilst not risk-assessing for COVID-19 is likely to save you time in the short term, in the long-term it could exacerbate ongoing problems caused by the virus.

 


4. A lack of free tests could make it difficult for employers to prevent workplace outbreak disruption

So far, partly in thanks to the widespread availability of free lateral flow tests, most non-key worker organisations have mainly been able to avoid the large-scale disruption from workplace-based COVID-19 outbreaks.

One of the best ways to stop a virulent virus in its tracks is isolating cases. Thanks to those tests, employers have been able to identify positive cases quickly and encourage those people to isolate. This has reduced the amount of close contacts that positive employees can potentially infect, in turn reducing the amount of people who become infected from a single case in a workplace.

From 1st April, Lateral Flow Tests in England will no longer be free. Instead, people seeking one will be charged around £20 for a pack of 7 tests if they are not considered to belong to a vulnerable group.

Naturally, this has the potential to cause COVID-19 chaos in the workplace, not to mention a huge headache for HR. Scientific research shows us 1 in 3 people infected with the virus are asymptomatic – not having visible symptoms, but able to infect others.

 Whereas previously workplaces had relied upon asking their employees to complete regular, free LFTs to stop COVID coming into work too, employees will now have to pay. As a result, with household incomes stretched further than in recent memory thanks to the cost of living crisis, it’s likely that many employees will not bother.

The logical conclusion to this decision then is the fact that COVID-19 cases in the workplace will begin to rise, as people will come into work not knowing that they’re infected and inadvertently infect others. And that’s not a great situation to be responsible for

HR departments will need to come up with a solution to this issue. One option would be for employers to shoulder the costs of weekly lateral flow testing for employees, or to subsidise tests, but this is likely to represent a significant, ongoing cost.


1.   You’ll need a strategy for long-term, COVID-19-related staff absences

As if the short term effects of workplace COVID-19 infection on staff absences and lost productivity wasn’t bad enough, there’s a longer term problem that’s soon going to make itself present to HR. And it could potentially be exacerbated by the Government’s Living with Covid plan. We’re talking about Long Covid.

Numerous studies have shown lingering COVID-19 symptoms can occur in many people who recover from the infection. A recent scientific study cited in Nature journal found that among 127 patients who recovered from COVID-19, 52.0% had some form of COVID-19 symptom, 29 days after infection.

Symptoms include extreme tiredness, brain-fog and anxiety/depression. It’s unclear at the moment how long Long Covid might last, and there’s some evidence that Long Covid is probably an emerging chronic condition that’s likely to have a long-term effect on a person’s quality of life. This could cause wide ranging disruption in the workplace, from widespread, long-lasting employee absences, through to drops in productivity and morale.

It makes sense then to analyse your current staff absence strategy and examine how you plan to deal with long term, COVID-19 related absences.

ACAS has some useful advice on Long Covid for employers and employees that outlines the basic steps you’ll need to take as a HR professional. The CIPD has shared some really practical advice on the subject too, going into detail about the best practices you should ideally be following when it comes to absences caused by Long Covid.


1.   You might have to rethink your current sick pay/absence policies

If the widespread absences caused by COVID-19 have shown us anything, it’s that the UK’s statutory sick pay is probably not fit for purpose.

Currently, if an employee is off on long-term sick leave, they will receive £99.35 per week Statutory Sick Pay ( SSP ) paid by an employer for up to 28 weeks.

There were arguments even before the pandemic that SSP was inadequate for meeting people’s needs in the 21st century. The UK’s proportion of sick pay based on income is one of the lowest in Europe. With the cost of living rising at unprecedented rates, it will soon become clear that SSP can’t meet the demands of a dangerous new economic situation and that a new solution will have to be found – otherwise loyal, long-term employees could be left destitute.

Unfortunately though, it’s likely that it will be left to employers to work out how to do this. Again, the CIPD has some excellent advice about why you might to revisit your current sick pay policy and make it more attractive to employees. Crafting a customised sick pay and absence policy that offers more than SSP can help your organisation position itself as one that really cares about the welfare of its employees – it can become a useful advantage to attract and retain highly skilled workers.


Even with a new policy in place, it’s likely that the virus, and the widespread disruption that it causes, will be with us for a while yet. By taking a proactive approach and thinking about the long-term, you’ll be able to prepare your organisation to weather the worst of the storm though. Good luck.


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