10 things we’ve learned from the new Covid guidance
07 April 2022
1 April marked another milestone in the loosening of Covid restrictions. Universal free testing has now ended, and the new guidance sees Covid being treated in (almost) the same way as other respiratory illness.
The key pieces of guidance of most relevance to employers are:
1. Workplace public health guidance– this addresses the principles for reducing the spread of respiratory infections in the workplace (including Covid) and replaces previous sector specific Covid guidance.
2. Public health guidance for people with symptoms of a respiratory infection including Covid – this sets out the recommended steps individuals should take if they have symptoms of a respiratory infection, have tested positive for Covid or live with someone who has tested positive.
3. General guidance for living safely with respiratory infections, including Covid – this sets out a number of key public health principles that aim to reduce the spread of respiratory infections, including Covid.
We have written in detail about the new guidance and what this means for the workplace in our FAQs which can be found here. However, here are the top ten things we learned (or did not learn!) from the revised guidance.
1. If you feel ill with a respiratory infection, stay off until you feel better.
Under the public health guidance for people with symptoms, if you have symptoms of a respiratory infection - which would include Covid - and a high temperature or you don’t well enough to go to work, you should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. You should do this until you no longer have a high temperature (if you had one at all) or until you no longer feel unwell.
2. You don’t have to test…but if you do, it’s 5 days’ isolation.
Testing is no longer part of the recommended approach to managing Covid, but of course many people will continue to use their current supply of lateral flow tests, will purchase new ones, or will perhaps be provided with them by their employer. Under the public health guidance for people with symptoms, adults who record a positive test should stay at home for 5 days, or longer if they still have a high temperature or feel unwell. They are also advised to avoid meeting people at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell, especially those at risk due to their immune system, for 10 days after taking the test.
3. The list of potential symptoms is now much longer.
It’s no longer just a cough, change to taste and smell, or a temperature that might officially signal Covid. Under the new public health guidance the list of symptoms of a respiratory infection – which would include Covid – has expanded significantly and now includes symptoms such as sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, diarrhoea, sickness and unexplained fatigue. The workplace public health guidance indicates that employers should be alert to this list, so this is something for employers to factor into risk assessments and workplace policies. For example, employers may want to be stricter about employees coming to work with common cold symptoms – although it may be difficult to persuade employees to comply unless they receive full sick pay.
4. Employers are expected to support public health compliance.
The public health guidance for people with symptoms outlines what people should do if they have symptoms of a respiratory infection or a positive Covid test. Now that it’s “should” rather than “must”, the onus has been put on employers to think about how they can best “enable and support” their workforce to follow these recommendations. No details are given as to what this means in practice, but the most effective way of ensuring that people stay away from work when they are potentially infectious is to ensure that they receive sick pay.
5. You don’t have to risk assess for Covid…but you can if you like.
The legal obligation to specifically address Covid in a workplace risk assessment has been removed. That said, the workplace public health guidance suggests that employers may choose to continue covering Covid in their risk assessments. In terms of actions to reduce the spread of infection, encouraging vaccination, good ventilation and keeping the workplace clean are identified as the key steps for employers to take.
6. Don’t forget about those at greater risk from Covid.
The workplace public health guidance serves as a reminder for employers to continue to consider the needs of those at greater risk from Covid infection, and principally those with weakened immune systems. Guidance for this particularly high risk group has been updated but continues to recommend working from home if possible. There is no guidance on what employers should do for high risk employees who cannot work from home.
7. New safety rules for close contacts
Close contacts of infected individuals are no longer advised to work from home. However, the public health guidance for people with symptoms does set out a number of recommendations for reducing the risk of the spread of infection (which we cover in more detail in our FAQs). Recommended steps include avoiding contact with those who are at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell and limiting contact with those outside your household. There is no guidance on how employers can assist close contacts to comply with this in the workplace. An employer could ask employees to notify them if they are a close contact so that arrangements can be made for work from home and/or appropriate safety measures can be put in place for any high risk colleagues.
8. Say goodbye to facemasks?
Despite becoming a familiar feature of many workplaces over the past 2 years, face masks are not even referred to in the workplace public health guidance. Nevertheless, there may well still be a place for them at work in some scenarios. Sensible and precautionary use of face masks is addressed in the guidance for living safely with respiratory infections, and the public health guidance for people with symptoms recommends their use for close contacts and infected individuals in certain circumstances.
9. No more testing?
Universal free testing has now ended and this has impacted significantly on the role this measure will play in managing the spread of Covid in the future. Whilst employers may choose to continue to facilitate asymptomatic testing, this is not recommended in the workplace public health guidance. Similarly, returning into circulation after having Covid is no longer dependant on having a clear Covid test.
10. Look again at data protection compliance
The ICO has released updated guidance which reminds employers to look again at measures put in place over the past 2 years which involve storing personal health data, such as data relating to testing or vaccination. It may be time to reconsider whether this use of data is still relevant and necessary, and also whether there is a lawful basis for processing - particularly if data processing relied on a specific piece of Covid regulation that has now been revoked. We cover this in more detail here.
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