How to make the new ‘Living with Covid’ plan work for your small business

The UK government has confirmed that England will end all Covid self-isolation laws on Thursday, as part of its ‘Living with Covid’ plan. What does this mean for SMEs?

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Earlier this month, Boris Johnson announced that all Covid-19 rules in England will be removed by the end of February.

The new plan has major implications for small businesses, including scrapping the requirement for individuals to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19.

Free mass testing is also scheduled to end on April 1.

Below, we look at what exactly the changes are, what they mean for small business owners, and how you can support and prepare your workforce for ‘Living with Covid’.

What is England’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan?

Boris Johnson’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan will take place over three stages.

The first stage has already taken place. New rules introduced on February 21 mean that staff and students in most education and childcare settings no longer have to test twice weekly.

But the change that will have the biggest impact on small businesses is the scrapping of all self-isolation rules from 24 February.

That means people with Covid will no longer be legally required to self-isolate for the previously-required period of five days.

Other new rules include:

  • Guidance will remain that those who test positive stay at home for five days
  • Contact tracing will end
  • Workers will no longer need to tell their employer if they need to self-isolate
  • Self-isolation support payments for those on low incomes will be scrapped

From 1 April:

  • Covid-19 tests will no longer be free except for the most vulnerable
  • Covid passports will be scrapped (except for international travel)
  • Employers will no longer have to explicitly consider Covid in their health and safety risk assessments

The plan Boris Johnson has announced to end all legal restrictions is for England only. Restrictions remain in place in other parts of the UK.

What do small business leaders think of the announcement?

In a press release, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chair Mike Cherry said: “Small firms right across England will be hoping that this week definitively marks the end of chopping and changing restrictions that have blighted them over the past two years.

“The priority now must be containing the virus and protecting community wellbeing whilst avoiding the need to shut down the economy entirely.”

What if my employees test positive for Covid-19?

The scrapping of Covid-19 self-isolation laws puts the responsibility of managing Covid-positive employees onto the business owner.

This means employers are in a slightly trickier situation when it comes to sick policies.

The government has said that ‘guidance’ will remain in place for those who test positive to stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days.

But the lack of legal rules is likely to result in individuals attending the workplace whilst either positive for Covid-19 or showing symptoms.

With the majority of the UK adult population now fully-vaccinated, symptoms will be milder. It would be unusual for someone to take a week off work because of a cold, and it’s likely only those with serious and/or debilitating Covid-19 symptoms will take time off work.

How can I support members of staff who might be worried about testing positive?

Regardless of the law, the government’s new plan may raise difficult issues for employers, who need to walk a thin line between living with Covid-19 and ensuring the safety of staff.

Many employers have chosen the latter option in the past.

Indeed, data from employee parking software ParkOffice has shown that employers allowed their staff to abandon the office enmasse during the spread of the Omicron variant pre-Christmas, despite there being no official Government advice to restrict movement.

Over the four week period between late November and the traditional break for Christmas, ParkOffice found there was a massive 92.5% decline in office goers across the UK.

As more people return to the office, your staff might want to avoid individuals who attend the workplace whilst positive for Covid-19 because they feel it is unsafe.

Legally, employers have a duty to support these employees and manage risks to those affected by their business. Here are a few examples for what that might look like:

Health and safety assessment

While no longer legally required, the way to do this is to carry out a health and safety risk assessment – including the risk of COVID-19 – and to take reasonable steps to mitigate any risks to other employees who might be worried about becoming infected with Covid-19.

The Government’s working safety guidance sets out a range of mitigations employers should consider including identifying poorly ventilated areas and taking steps to improve air flow in these areas.

Run an employee engagement survey and/or forum

Employee feedback surveys are meant to improve productivity by understanding the way your employees think about your company’s current policies and ways of working.

Check the attitude of your workplace towards the new ‘Living with Covid’ plan with an anonymous feedback survey before you decide on any long-term policies.

It might be that your staff are happy to work with people who have tested positive for Covid – or, you might learn that they are unhappy with the new rules and will require more reassurance and support measures.

This is not only a helpful exercise for business leaders, as you can hear concerns and issues directly from your employees. It’s also a good communication channel for staff members to air any grievances and feel they are being listened to.

Similar to this approach is an employee engagement forum. This is essentially a team discussion amongst a handful of volunteers from your workforce who can then share their ideas on a problem and give feedback on how other employees might be feeling.

Implement your own self-isolation policy

If you feel that a large enough majority of your staff are concerned about the government’s new plan, there are more forceful steps you can take.

The end of the legal obligation to self-isolate does not prevent employers from having their own restrictions on workplace attendance for those who test positive for Covid-19 – if you choose to do so.

Typically, these rules would be contained in the employer’s policies and may, for example, stipulate that individuals who either test positive for Covid-19, and/or are displaying symptoms of the virus, work from home until a negative test is taken.

This more assertive action is not without potential risks, and you should make sure to properly communicate your reasoning to staff members to avoid alienating them.

You should also consider:

  • Purchasing home-testing kits for employees who are displaying symptoms of Covid-19 and wish to take a test.As free testing has now been scrapped, putting the onus of purchasing a test on your employees could cause friction.
  • Choosing to keep in place rules on face-coverings, hand washing and other safety measures should you wish. These might further reassure employees that the workplace is safe to continue working in.

Conclusion

The government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan means it is now lawful for employees to attend the workplace with Covid-19 or with symptoms.

Still, employers should carry out employee surveys to check the temperature of their staff and keep an eye on the mood of the workplace on Covid-19 issues.

There is still debate about whether or not these restrictions should be lifted and a good employer should ensure they are addressing the concerns of staff members who might not feel safe coming into the office – particularly after nearly two years of living with Covid-19 safety measures.

Open communication through employee surveys and even specialist engagement committees will help your staff to function properly and ensure they feel properly supported.

Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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