Businesses experienced over a year of furloughs, grants, business closures, re-openings and then further lockdowns before finally coming out of hibernation this summer. Many provisions have been left in place to help support the UK through reopening and ensuring that rising numbers of Covid positive patients are kept to a minimum. In response to a recommendation for continued monitoring of the situation, the UK Government announced its COVID-19 autumn and winter 2021 plan many employers will have been left asking what the plan meant for them and their staff. Here we take a look at what those Plans entail and cover some frequently asked questions about Plan B.
What’s the Plan?
Or, should we say Plans? The UK Government published Covid-19 Response: Autumn And Winter Plan. This summarised the lockdown restrictions and rules that were removed and outlined the provisions that would remain in place to manage and support the ongoing pandemic.
This takes the form of two plans. The plans (Plan A and Plan B) apply in England. Other country in the UK including Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland will create their own plans or rules to follow this autumn and winter.
The plan we are currently following is Plan A and England will follow this until further notice is given. The basic standards of Plan A are:
- Building defences through pharmaceutical interventions including vaccines and antivirals.
- Identifying and isolating positive cases to limit transmission: Test, Trace and Isolate.
- Supporting the NHS and social care.
- Advising people on how to protect themselves and others with guidance.
- Pursuing an international approach to help to vaccinate the world and manage risks at the border.
Guidance for working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) was updated last month to support employers in reducing workplace risks.
While most employees have now been encouraged to return to the workplace businesses are encouraged to:
- Not ask nor allow employees to attend the workplace if they are required to self-isolate
- Ask employees who feel unwell to stay at home.
- Ensure there is adequate supply of fresh are into indoor spaces by opening windows and/or doors.
- Provide hand sanitiser and supplies to clean surfaces which are regularly touched.
- Consider using, as appropriate, the NHS QR code poster for customers to check in and the NHS COVID-19 app
Masks are no longer a legal requirement; however, employers should conduct a risk assessment and can ask their employees to wear masks to reduce the risk of transmission.
Should pressure upon the NHS and emergency services increase such that this pressure becomes unsustainable the Government may choose to implement Plan B. Prior notice would be given prior to a switch to Plan B and the UK Government has said that if mandatory vaccine certification comes into force they will five at least one week’s notice.
Plan B entails the following:
- Working from home where reasonable and possible
- Legal requirement to wear face masks in certain settings (these will be outlined should Plan B be implemented)
- Asking the public to be more cautious
- Mandatory vaccine passports for nightclubs, indoor settings with more than 500 attendees, festivals and other outdoor setting with greater than 4000 people and any setting for more than 10000 people.
Whether as an employer all of your staff have returned to the workplace or some or all are still following working from home or hybrid working – you will need to decide what the plan is going forward. This is especially important given there is a least a risk of England adopting Plan B this Autumn or Winter. The SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) have advised that working from home is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of transmission. So what happens if Plan B is implemented and your staff return to work from home?
Can an employer reduce employee’s pay because they work from home full or part time?
The quick answer is no! The only way an employer can reduce an employee’s pay is with agreement from the member of staff. If your staff are still performing the same tasks, it’s unlikely they will jump at the idea of less pay; especially if colleagues who are hybrid working, or office based keep the same pay. Whilst it may be easy to think that an employee’s ancillary costs such as transport or clothing expenses are reduced by working from home; it should not be overlooked that the cost of their utility bills are likely to increase.
How does an employer support staff working from home?
The UK Government advice clearly sees the necessity for hybrid working; especially should it become necessary to implement Plan B. It’s a good idea to review any risk assessments and consider what the best actions will be should the UK need to return to home working. Any staff with disabilities or special needs will need considerations for their working spaces to be made to ensure they are working safely.
Employers should have discussions with their staff to fully understand their needs and the best way to ensure business continuity. Employers should also ensure they have a thorough home working policy which covers things such as (this is not an exhaustive list) :
- Healthy and safety
- GDPR and data protection
- Disciplinary proceedings
What happens if an employee feels reluctant to return to the workplace?
Understandably, some staff, especially those more vulnerable or those affected by Covid-19 may feel trepidatious about returning to the workplace. It is crucial that employers have frank and honest conversations with their employees both regarding a return to base and the employee’s concerns surrounding this. Consider an employee’s request and reasons for not wanting to return to work. Where reasonable or possible, consider allowing the staff member to work from home even some days a week to help alleviate their concerns. Repercussions for dismissing a employee for failing to attend the workplace following their belief of imminent danger could be considered an unfair dismissal and employees do not need two year’s service to bring forth a claim.
What about insuring employees working from home?
Working from home could render existing insurance policies as invalid or inadequate. Contact insurers and discuss hybrid or home working needs so that the correct policies are in place to cover things such as personal injury, damage or theft of equipment, cyber-related breaches and the use of vehicles from a remote working location.
What if an employee wants to work from another country?
If employees are based overseas then, employers will need to consider taxation rules both here in England and in the host country. Generally speaking, UK employers will need to deduct PAYE and NI contributions while employees are based overseas. Many countries have special COVID-19 tax exemptions but employees will need to check each country’s rules individually.
We realise there will be many questions for employers regarding keeping their businesses afloat, managing staff working from home and supporting casual staff in the event of business closure. You can get more information from the UK Government Guidance and HR support companies.