Omicron is here. What does that mean for employers?

1 December 2021

It is the cliché that keeps on giving.  Uncertainty remains the only certainty in this world of coronavirus and all its mutations.

At the time of writing, the number of cases in the UK of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron (technically, the B.1.1.529 variant), had reached 32.  This is likely to increase given the current view among scientists that Omicron may be more infectious than the existing Delta variant of coronavirus and vaccinations less effective against it.

Although it continues to insist that moving to its COVID-19 Plan B measures is not (yet) necessary, the Government has introduced new measures to tackle the new variant.  In short:

  • South Africa, Botswana, Lesostho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola have been added to the UK’s travel red list.  People travelling to the UK from those destinations must, regardless of their vaccination status:
    • take a COVID-19 test in the three day period before they travel to the UK;
    • book a quarantine hotel package; and
    • complete a passenger locator form
  • All international arrivals to the UK, regardless of vaccination status, must take a PCR test (to be obtained from private providers) within two days of arrival and must self-isolate until they receive a negative result.  A positive result will require the individual to self-isolate for 10 days.
  • All contacts of suspected Omicron cases (contacted by NHS Test and Trace) must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their age or vaccination status.
  • Face coverings are now compulsory in shops and settings such as banks, post offices and hairdressers, as well as on public transport unless individuals are exempt.  All hospitality settings are exempt from this requirement.

Separately, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has advised that the booster vaccination programme be extended to all 18-39 year olds (it previously applied to those over the age of 40) and that the gap between the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination and the booster be reduced to three months (previously six months).

Note that the Government is not changing its current advice to recommend that people in England work from home if they can.  The Government’s position is that it remains up to employers to decide on "the right balance" between requiring staff to attend the workplace or work from home.  This is different to the position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where the advice is to encourage people to work from home. 

The Government will review these new measures in three weeks’ time and decide whether to retain, tighten or relax them.

What does this mean for employers?

The following immediate considerations come to mind in light of these changes:

Christmas party – going ahead?  Although the Prime Minister has said that the Government does not want Christmas parties to be cancelled because of the Omicron variant, there have been reports of pubs, restaurants and hotels across the UK receiving cancellations of bookings for Christmas parties and events amid fears about the variant.  Staff may be nervous about attending such events.  It is therefore advisable for employers to feel the mood among their staff and react accordingly.  If parties are to go ahead, additional safety measures may be considered (such as sight of a negative lateral flow test result before entry).

Review and, if necessary, update their COVID-19 risk assessment in light of the new variant.  For example, consider whether in-person meetings should be reduced or even scrapped for the time being to limit the risk of spread and to protect the most vulnerable members of staff.

Continue to encourage staff to get vaccinated and extend this encouragement to boosters.

Update any existing vaccination policy to take account of boosters.  If vaccination is a compulsory requirement, for example, consider extending this requirement to boosters (although employers should keep in mind the legal risks involved in requiring staff to be vaccinated).

Consider making the wearing of face masks compulsory in communal areas if this is not already the case.

Consider putting in place contingency plans to deal with the possibility of increased absences as a result of staff being required to self-isolate, either because they have tested positive for coronavirus or have been instructed to isolate because they have been identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive to the Omicron variant (remember the “pingdemic”?).

Similarly, consider how any unexpected absences will be dealt with as a result of staff having to self-isolate upon return from any holiday abroad during the festive period.  This should be communicated to staff as soon as possible to avoid/manage any possible complaints.

Consider relaxing any requirements for staff to attend the workplace.  This would be done as part of updating the workplace risk assessment.  Remember that although the Government is not explicitly advising people to work from home, it is clearly placing the burden on employers to consider whether this is the appropriate approach.

Consider revisiting any plans for staff to undertake international travel on business given the current developments.

The key message to employers now is to watch developments closely and to be ready to react quickly in order to adapt to any further measures introduced by the Government in its developing response to this Omicron variant.

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the topics covered in this blog, please contact any member of our Employment Team.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Richard Fox is a partner in the Employment Team, which he founded nearly 25 years ago. He acts for corporates, organisations and senior individuals in relation to employment matters of all kinds. He has been President of the London Solicitors Association (2000 to 2002), Chair of the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA’s) Legislative & Policy Committee (2008 to 2010), ELA Deputy Chair (2010 to 2012) and ELA’s National Chair (2012 to 2014). He is a well-known commentator on employment issues of all kinds.

Özlem Mehmet is a Professional Support Lawyer in our Employment Team. Before joining Kingsley Napley, Özlem was a Tutor and Team Leader at BPP University’s Law School, teaching on the Legal Practice Course.  She taught the Employment Law, Business Law & Practice, Corporate Finance and Equity Finance modules of the course, as well as the skills modules of Interviewing & Advising and Professional Conduct & Regulation.  She also supervised a number of Masters level projects on employment law related topics.

 

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