In an open letter to chancellor Rishi Sunak, 15 charities including Age UK and Macmillan Cancer Support, asked the government to provide more support to those who are still unable to return to work due to the high risk the virus plays on their health.
As restrictions unwind, the charities expressed concern that high-risk workers will find themselves in an “impossible position” if they cannot work remotely, and if workplaces cannot be made adequately COVID-safe to accommodate them.
The charities wrote: “They may be forced to choose between putting their health on the line by returning or staying safe by giving up their job.”
Becky Neale, owner and director of Stonechat HR Consulting, agreed that the lifting of shielding restrictions and the anticipation of a second wave of the virus seemingly puts high risk workers at odds with their employers.
She told HR magazine: “It seems a strange decision by the government not to pause lifting the shielding restrictions.
“Those who cannot work from home can now return to work providing the workplace can be made COVID-safe. This leaves employers and previously shielding employees to hopefully agree what this looks like as opposed to imposing decisions.”
Instead of returning to work, one potential alternative, the charities suggested, would be an extended furlough-type scheme for high-risk people – which the charities are also now petitioning for.
Supporting the charities’ call, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) urged government to make it clear to employers that they should not demand high risk employees return to the workplace immediately.
It also recommended the furlough scheme continue to be used for high-risk employees at least until it is closed on 31 October.
Speaking to The Guardian, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It would be heartless and reckless for employers to demand the immediate return of shielding workers.
"After self-isolation for a number of months, requiring shielding workers to immediately travel to workplaces may cause anxiety and distress.
“[…] the government should make clear that furlough will still be an option after October for shielding workers who cannot safely travel to workplaces or who may be subject to a local lockdown.”
In order to move forward, Neale urged other HR leaders and employers to work with employees on a case by case basis when considering a return to work.
She added: “Involve the support of occupational health and the employees’ GP to support the transition back to work where possible and protect the employees’ job and wellbeing.”
Shielding advice has also been paused in Scotland and Northern Ireland yet the guidance for Wales is expected to last until 16 August.
In the latest update from the UK government, prime minister Boris Johnson is reportedly considering further shielding measures for the end of the year.
Personalised risk ratings, taking into account age and medical conditions, are also being considered.