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Should HR be concerned about the new Omicron COVID variant?

Six cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant have been found in Scotland, and several countries, including parts of South Africa, have been added to the UK’s red list for international travel.

With information about the new variant still relatively unknown, it may be advisable for HR leaders to reconsider their options for the months ahead.

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Gemma Dale, lecturer in HR at Liverpool John Moores University Business School, said that now is the time for caution, and employers should act quickly to safeguard staff instead of waiting for government guidance.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “It will be several weeks before we know what the new variant means in terms of transmission and impact. Employers should not wait but take prompt action now to protect employees – they should also not be waiting for the government to take action.”

While noting that some employers will not be able to move to working from home, she said: “We should be discouraging attendance in the office unless essential.

“Move meetings online again, reduce face-to-face training and encourage people to travel outside of the rush hour when they have to use public transport.”

Dale said she had heard of several colleagues reviewing company policy to see if any changes are needed to account for the variant.

She added: “COVID is airborne, so if people are in the office, then ventilation is essential. It is of course the Christmas season soon and many people will want to take the opportunity to get together again with colleagues, especially after this was not possible last year.

“Sadly, employers may need to take steps to discourage this until more can be known.”

Omicron is causing concern because it has a large number of mutations in comparison to previous variants, so immunologists are unsure how much immunity current vaccination will provide.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the variant poses a ‘very high’ global risk in the spread of infection and urged nations to prioritise vaccinations for vulnerable groups. 

Deputy first minister of Scotland John Swinney said the confirmed cases of Omicron infection in the country have so far shown "no evidence of serious illness".

First minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to make an announcement today about how the nation will respond.

The UK government has already announced mandatory mask-wearing with be reinstated for retail and transport in England this week, and some are warning of the onus this places on frontline workers.

Steve Tonks, SVP EMEA at WorkForce Software, said: “Rapidly changing compliance rules place an increased risk and responsibility on the shoulders of front-line employees. Employers need technology that helps them adapt to new regulations just as quickly, whilst keeping their finger on the pulse of the front-line employee experience."

Meanwhile Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula UK, reasoned that any new protective measures won’t be wholly unexpected.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: "Many organisations will be able to follow their plans which have been implemented over previous months, as the restrictions are not anything we haven’t seen before. But, to ensure their efficacy, employers should communicate with their employees to clearly explain the importance of compliance, minimise hesitancy and re-assure them that the organisation takes the situation seriously."

A move to Plan B has not yet been announced in the UK, but Palmer added that employers should have a plan in place just in case. 

She said: “Putting plans in place now and ensuring employees that you are on top of things when it comes to their safety will help contribute towards increased motivation and satisfaction, reduce their fears and can also help reduce the risk of grievances or tribunal claims.”

For employers with staff returning from overseas Palmer added that consideration must be made for any changes in arrival rules. Temporary work from home should be considered if they had to quarantine. Where not possible she added: "Employers can instead look at offering alternative positions, agreeing a period of annual leave or TOIL (time off in lieu), or authorising unpaid leave.

"Employees are not entitled to statutory sick pay for periods of quarantine, unless there is a contractual provision for this.”

WHO's current known information about the Omicron variant can be found here.