Living with Covid and the end of isolation: employers risk excluding vulnerable

Workers have returned to offices
Workers have returned to offices - Image © Prostock-studio -

As all remaining Covid restrictions will be lifted in England from Thursday 24 February, how will employers keep vulnerable staff safe?

With isolation no longer required when Covid positive, experts have said the burden of care has shifted to employers.

Angela Matthews, head of policy at non-profit network Business Disability Forum (BDF), told HR magazine: “The decision to remove all restrictions now makes Covid a central consideration for both workplace inclusion and employee wellbeing.”

The BDF, she added, is concerned that with restrictions lifted, some employers may abandon all precautions against the virus and endanger or exclude vulnerable employees.

She said: “Some restrictions – such as wearing face masks if and when you can and some social distancing measures – are low cost and low maintenance for employers to implement and manage, but they can make such a big difference to disabled workers and unpaid carers.”

The post-pandemic workplace:

What does ‘living with Covid’ mean for business?

Long Covid impacting half of UK organisations

What Covid means for unvaccinated workers

Data from manufacturing company Airdri found that over a quarter (26%) of home-workers are most worried about Covid when returning to the office.

Many employers, Matthews added, have staff who are shielding or immunocompromised, and are still unable to leave their homes or commute.

Samantha Dickinson, partner at firm Mayo Wynne Baxter, warned employers not to see the new rules as a ‘green light’ to order employees back to the office.

She said: “There are additional responsibilities owed to those who are disabled (as defined by the Equality Act 2010) and those who have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness if they catch the virus.

“Allowing an employee to work from home – especially if they have done so successfully for the last two years or so – is bound to be viewed as a reasonable adjustment, and any employer who imposes a blanket ‘office-only’ policy is likely to face claims of discrimination or constructive dismissal in the employment tribunal.”

Charlie Thompson, employment partner at law firm Stewarts, added: “Employers should continue to keep their ‘return to work’ policy under review: on what basis is it justified, what steps are being taken to ensure safety and what (if any) exceptions will be made for staff who are clinically vulnerable?”

Things can become even more complicated for an employer, he added, when someone tests positive but is not required by their employer to self-isolate.

Some experts have warned that low levels of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), and the fact that you only receive it on the fourth day of illness, will pressure low-paid workers into coming into work while ill.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Unions Council (TUC) said that the failure to provide decent sick pay from the first day of illness was reckless.

She said: “If people can't afford to stay home when they’re sick, they will take their infections into work.”

According to research by HR software provider CIPHR, around a third (31%) of employers admit that, once the legal obligation to self-isolate ends, they will not expect their workers to do so.

O'Grady added: “Ministers' inability to grasp this fact will leave the UK vulnerable to future variants and pandemics.” 

Thompson also noted the vicious cycle this could put employees in.

He said: “If the employee cannot work from home but is sent home anyway, then in some cases the employer will be under an obligation to continue to pay them. 

“And where employers are entitled to withhold pay from employees who test positive, then that is likely to lead to employees not declaring a positive test result."

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, reminded employers of their duty of care when moving to 'Living with Covid'.

He said: “When deciding what rules and guidance to put in place, employers need to be led by the principles of what is fair and reasonable to ask, respecting that many people with vulnerabilities will still be very concerned about coming into places of work.

“Employers need to be very aware of presenteeism (working when ill) and seek to address the causes, which may be employees feeling pressured to come in to work, or concerns about support and levels of sick pay. 

“Trust between employers and employees will be fundamental.”


If you have a pressing D&I problem you can't get to the bottom of, send in your query to be answered by our resident D&I specialist Huma Qazi in the next issue of HR magazine.