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What would a COVID Plan B mean for employers?

While the government has not yet publicly suggested any move to ‘Plan B,’ experts from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have suggested that a change from current guidance would prevent a serious deterioration in public health this winter.

As it stands, Plan B, the government’s winter contingency COVID strategy, would make face coverings compulsory in some settings, grant powers to introduce vaccine passports and encourage people to work from home.

The government is said to be considering an immediate move to these more serious restrictions, according to leaked documents reportedly sent to local council leaders and directors of Public Health by the UK Health Security Agency.

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Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, told HR magazine that the transition to Plan B wouldn't be the challenge it was last year.

He said: “Most organisations are now well drilled in home working and will have learnt how to optimise such arrangements in the last 18 months.

“With cases at a three-month high,” he added, “it’s also important that employers prioritise the health and wellbeing of all staff. We would suggest that employers continue to remind their people about the importance of getting the vaccine and booster jab.”

Yet Plan B could present an abrupt change of course for companies that have only just been able to reopen.

Asha Kumar, employment partner at law firm Keystone Law, suggested some businesses might struggle with the change.

She said: “Plan B creates somewhat of a predicament for employers, given that many have spent months gearing up to transition their workforce back into the office on either a 3:2 flexi-agile basis or in some cases, on a full-time basis.”

She recommended employers revisit their COVID risk assessments and ensure risks are reasonably mitigated against, which may include reintroducing social distancing, mask wearing or improving ventilation.

Employers, Asha added, should think about introducing an outbreak procedure, where managers are informed of steps that should be taken in the event of notified cases occurring in the workplace.

“Finally, employers may want to rethink whether lateral flow tests are required before coming to the office, or whether vaccinations should be mandated for staff, although both of these options would require navigating through complex employment law challenges,” she said.

Vaccine mandates have so far only been applied to care home workers in the UK, yet have faced considerable opposition in the sector, with reportedly 15% of care home staff planning to quit over mandatory vaccinations. 

Under Plan B, mandatory vaccination certificates (via the NHS app) would only be necessary for attendees of nightclubs and large venues.

For employers looking to introduce the requirement for their own employees, Kumar said the issue throws up employment law issues which would need to be navigated carefully.

She told HR magazine: “Employers would need to be clear on why they are seeking to impose this requirement, as it needs to be a reasonable instruction – something necessary for operations to continue, or for significant health reasons, for instance.”

“Even where a reasonable basis can be established, employers will need to put in place a robust impact assessment clearly demonstrating that a disclosure of vaccination status and/or a vaccination in itself will reduce a significant impact on the business or employee health.”