HR needs to prepare for winter COVID plan

Following the government’s unveiling of its 2021 autumn and winter plan, employers in England are being urged to prepare for a return to restrictions as a worst-case scenario.

Announcing the plans, prime minister Boris Johnson warned that COVID-19 remained a very real threat and detailed two plans for dealing with it this winter.

Under Plan A, the vaccination programme will continue with the rollout of a booster programme and testing, tracing and isolating will also carry on in line with current guidelines. 

However, if the NHS becomes overwhelmed the country may move to Plan B, which would see a possible return to mandatory mask wearing, working from home and enforced vaccination passports for certain events. 

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For both plans, HR leaders will need to consider a host of questions such as whether they will offer paid time off for employees to receive a booster or offer advice on taking the flu vaccine.

Those in healthcare settings will also need to ensure those without full vaccination status or proof of exemption are not working on the frontline, while plans must be in place for short-notice homeworking.

Helen Giles, director of people and culture at respite provider Revitalise, told HR magazine that thankfully organisations and HR has gotten used to dealing with uncertainty now.

"It's a fluid situation anyway and I think organisations have dealt with so much uncertainty," she said.

"They've got used to feeling their way, rather than have tight planning. They need to have clear hybrid working policies now and recognise they may have to ask people to work from home etc. That's all you can do really."

"Government guidance can change at a moment's notice, which means sometimes your own communications have to be somewhat vague, but you just have to make sure your staff understand that. It's all you can do."

Nevertheless Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at HR, employment law and health and safety consultancy Peninsula, said employers must be ready.

Speaking to HR magazine she said: “We moved to home-based working in such a last-minute, reactive, haphazard way during the first lockdown, no one wants to be in that place again.

“Businesses need to be thinking about having conversations with people, being open about what may lie ahead. Don’t leave themselves open to being reactive, but get a more streamlined contingency plan in place.”

Palmer highlighted that for many employers discussions are ongoing about a return to the workplace, and urged them to consider whether bringing people back to the workplace is necessary yet. 

“Is it wise to really pursue it now until we see what the lay of the land is this winter? Some employers are actually beginning to stop and query this," she said.

HR leaders must also be on top of vaccination advice, Palmer stated, advising HR to focus on education and the benefits of the vaccine in its messaging rather than being forceful or putting out instructions that may be discriminatory.

“Choice of language is key here,” she said. 

Although not mandatory, businesses should consider offering paid time off for vaccinations and boosters, Palmer said, while support for any financially backed ‘fire-break’ periods remained unclear as September sees the end of the furlough scheme

“It’s down to what individual employers want to do, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the support programme won’t be there and it leaves a gaping hole.”

Sunil Purba, employee relations manager at Severn Trent, said that throughout the pandemic the company had always given its employees time off and full pay for attending vaccinations and time off for any side effects.

He told HR magazine that they would continue to offer the same support during the booster vaccine programme.

“We already encourage employees to get the flu vaccine and allow them to claim this back on expenses,” he added.

“Our people have worked throughout the pandemic to keep our customers' taps flowing and we have provided COVID-secure workplaces for all of our employees as well as supporting those who have needed to work from home. 

“We will continue to follow all government guidance. For example, if any of our employees need to attend a healthcare setting, they can only do so if fully vaccinated.

"Similarly, we will continue to support and make reasonable adjustments for those who may need to self-isolate and/or obtain a PCR test.”