Whilst everyone in England is required to follow the current national lockdown guidance, those people who have been identified as being ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ have been advised to take extra care and to shield themselves from coming into contact with the virus. For many of those individuals, this has been a long and difficult period and has had a huge impact on their working lives.
Shielding measures were put in place across the whole of England because clinically extremely vulnerable people are considered more at risk of needing hospital treatment and becoming extremely unwell if they come into contact with the Covid-19 virus.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has now confirmed that shielding in England will end on 31 March 2021.
How many people have been shielding?
It is reported that over 3.79 million people in England have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable and have been added to the ‘Shielded Patient List’.
Why is the requirement to shield being removed now?
This change is, reportedly, due to the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalisations continuing to fall.
Whilst this may be welcome news to some, many people who have been shielding will not have yet received both of their Covid-19 vaccinations, and as we know, the virus is still prevalent in our communities. There may be some fear amongst those who have been shielding following this news.
How will people who are shielding be informed of this change?
The Government issued a new letter to all people on the Shielded Patient List on 17 March 2021. This contains new guidance that takes effect from 1 April 2021.
What is the new guidance for extremely vulnerable people from 1 April 2021?
The Government’s letter still recommends that those on the Shielded Patient List take extra precautions to protect themselves and provides practical steps covering socialising, travel, work and school. The letter confirms that the regulations that are in place for everyone during the pandemic, still apply to all.
Those who have been shielding are advised to keep their social interactions low and to reduce the amount of time spent in settings where maintaining social distancing is difficult.
How do the changes impact employment?
As we know, the advice in England is still that everyone should continue to work from home where possible. If you cannot work from home, even those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are now advised that they should attend their workplace.
What advice can we give to those employers who have clinically extremely vulnerable employees?
As an employer, you are required to take steps to reduce the risk of your employees and others who enter the workplace being exposed to Covid-19.
It is important that your workforce understands the processes and initiatives you have put in place to keep them safe, and that they have confidence in them. You are required to do all that you can to protect your employees’ health and safety whilst at work. This legal requirement covers all of your employees whether they are classed as ‘vulnerable’ or not.
We have provided articles previously that cover the risk assessment process, and it is particularly important to carry out a risk assessment for those individuals who are returning to work following a period of shielding. Where you identify risks, in all cases you must do all you can to reduce those risks.
It may be that some of your employees who have been shielding will continue to work from home as they have done previously, and will not notice a real change in their working day. The main change is that from 1 April you can allow those employees who have been shielding and unable to work from home, to return to the workplace.
Returning to the Workplace
Where an employee has been absent for some time, whether through a shielding requirement or other long term absence, do carry out a ‘return to work’ meeting with them. This should be done on a one-to-one basis and in a confidential setting. The employee may have valid concerns about risks, and it is likely that procedures have changed during their absence. A return to work meeting will allow you to listen to their concerns and reassure them of the action you have taken.
It is also important to ensure that your returning employees know what they are required to do to protect their colleagues and other people attending the workplace. They may also need to be shown any new policies that you have introduced during their absence.
Do be aware that returning to work following a period of absence can be a worrying time for employees, and after shielding an employee may have real concerns around their health and safety.
Do continue to look for simple ways to avoid the spread of the virus, for example, are face to face meetings necessary? Do your employees really have to travel outside of the area?
What about other Government schemes, are they also impacted by this change?
As we have previously advised, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the furlough scheme) has been extended until 30 September, along with the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).
An important note for employers is that from 1 April 2021 those who have been shielding will no longer be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) on the basis of being advised to shield. This is because the requirement to shield has been lifted.
In addition, local councils and supermarkets will provide shielding support only until 31 March.