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What does ‘living with Covid’ mean for business?

The government’s proposal to reduce free lateral flow tests (LFTs) may leave employers with responsibility for testing some frontline workers.

A report in the Sunday Times on 9 January quoted a senior Whitehall source as saying that free tests would only be available to workers in high-risk settings, such as care homes, hospitals, schools, and for those with symptoms.

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Companies that don't fall within the high-risk category but plan to test regularly to prevent Covid and consequent sickness absences would have to pay for test kits.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, told HR Magazine: “Ultimately, there is no mandatory requirement for employers to provide or subsidise Covid tests for their staff.

“However, doing so may alleviate workplace concerns over catching and spreading the virus, and thereby sidestep the issues of reduced productivity, long-term absences and higher turnover rates.”

Speaking to The Observer Clive Dix, former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, has also called for an end to mass jabs on the grounds that the country should begin treating the virus like the flu.

Similarly, Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary and former minister for vaccine deployment, told Sky News that he hoped the UK would be among the first nations to demonstrate a transition from pandemic to endemic, in which the virus becomes commonplace but predictable and manageable.

Price, however, advised companies to move cautiously when looking forward to the end of the pandemic.

He said: “Any decisions to relax prevention and protection measures should be done in line with government guidance.

“While there are calls to move into a 'living with Covid' society, there are still legal measures in place that businesses must abide by.” 

These include allowing remote working when possible, enforcing the wearing of masks in public places and social distancing measures. 

Statutory Sick Pay

In another aspect of learning to live with the virus, some companies, including Morrisons and most recently Ikea and Wessex Water, plan to cut sick pay for unvaccinated staff who are forced to self-isolate as a result of contact with an infected person.

David Jepps, employment law partner at Keystone Law, said: “At the beginning of the pandemic, SSP rules were changed to allow employees who were required to self-isolate, but who may not have been ill as such, to be paid up to two weeks’ SSP. This includes unvaccinated employees. However, these rules do not strictly cover any additional sick pay paid by the employer over and above SSP

“Additional sick pay is often discretionary, meaning that the employer could choose whether to pay additional sick pay or not and potentially choose not to pay unvaccinated employees.”

Price added that it is, however, important to avoid treating employees unfavourably if reducing sick pay for self-isolation, particularly for staff with underlying health issues.

He said: “Any business looking to reduce sick pay to lower than normal levels, such as Ikea and Wessex Water have done, must first consider the wider impact this may have on staff and put in place adjustments where needed, to avoid any potential risk of claims.”