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The Omicron variant: employers questions answered

Since 4am this morning, new legal measures are in place to curb the spread of coronavirus now that a new variant has been identified which is already in the UK. 

We explain what this means for employers.

1. What new legal restrictions are in place?

There are three new Regulations. 

(1) The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 require people to self-isolate for 10 days if they are contacted by Test and Trace because they are believed to have been in contact with someone who is suspected of having the new Omicron variant, or has tested positive for it. Unlike previous variants, these rules apply to all individuals (including children) even if they are fully vaccinated. 

(2) The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 require people to wear face coverings in 'shops' and on public transport unless they are medically exempt. Shops are widely defined and includes shopping centers, hairdressers, travel agents, supermarkets, post offices etc.

The government hasn't yet updated its sector specific guidelines on working safely during coronavirus to reflect these new rules but people working in 'shops' and on public transport must also follow the guidance (unless they are medically exempt).

The legal rules on wearing face coverings don't apply to workplaces that aren't included in the legislation such as offices, warehouses and hospitality settings (such as pubs and restaurants)*. There is also no legal requirement for face coverings to be worn in schools and colleges (although the government is 'strongly advising' staff, pupils and visitors to wear them in communal areas). 

* The The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 which came into force on 10 December increased the numbers of places where face coverings must be worn.

(3) The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel and Operator Liability) (England) (Amendment) (No. 21) Regulations 2021 impose new travel regulations requiring PCR tests for all adults and children entering the UK and the need to self-isolate until they receive a negative result. 

The government has said that it has introduced these new rules 'as a precaution while more information is gathered and assessed on the variant’s transmissibility and any possible effect on our vaccines'.

2. Do these new regulations apply to the whole of the UK?

These regulations apply to England. Scotland and Wales already have legislation in place which requires people to wear masks on public transport and in shops (and includes other workplaces in Scotland). Their devolved governments have also recently introduced travel restrictions in line with those announced by the UK Government.   

3. Has the government asked people to work from home again?

No. In England, the work-from-home guidance ended when most COVID-19 rules were lifted on 19 July. In September the government set out its plan for autumn and winter. Plan B (which it hasn't implemented in full) includes asking those who can work from home to do so to reduce the number of people using public transport and having face to face meetings. However, the government has said that there’s no need to impose a new work-from-home rule at the moment. **

** The government has now implemented 'Plan B' and has asked people to work from home if they can from Monday 13 December.

In Scotland, most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, but people are still advised to work from home where possible. The government wants employers to consider long-term 'hybrid' models with a mixture of home and office working.

In Wales, most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in August, but employers are still encouraged to let people work from home where possible. Guidance says staff should not be "required or placed under pressure to return" to the workplace unless there's a clear business need.

4. Has the government reintroduced shielding?

No. Shielding advice was paused on 1 April 2021 and, since 19 July 2021, people who were previously identified as CEV have been advised to follow the same guidance as the rest of the adult population. 

That guidance may change if evidence emerges that this new variant is more severe and/or more transmissable. 

5. What rules apply to foreign travel?

Anyone who arrived in England after 4am on Tuesday 30 November must self-isolate until they obtain a negative PCR test (the test has to be done within 48 hours of returning to the UK).

Ten southern African countries have been added to the UK's travel red list. The only people allowed to enter the UK from these countries are UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents, but they will have to pay for, and self-isolate, in a pre-booked government-approved hotel for 10 days. There are some exemptions.

These new restrictions apply even to UK nationals who are fully vaccinated.

These restrictions will inevitably mean that people will not be able to physically return to their workplaces immediately they return to the UK. Make sure that your staff understand this and how it will impact on their pay. We answered a number of questions in an earlier article which you might find helpful including whether you can refuse to grant holiday to people travelling abroad and if you have to pay them during quarantine if they can't work from home.  

6. Do we need to undertake another risk assessment?

You should already be regularly reviewing your risk assessments for COVID-19 to ensure that you are doing everything you reasonably can to reduce transmission. However, we don't yet know if Omicron will result in more severe infections or how transmissible it is. The UK government expects to have more information in the next three weeks. 

That said, it may be sensible to adopt a precautionary approach whilst data is being analysed. You might want to reintroduce social distancing, mask wearing etc and minimise face to face contact. And at the risk of being accused of being a kill-joy, you may want to think about putting your Christmas party on the back burner until we know more about the variant.

7. What are the symptoms of Omicron?

The government hasn't updated it's list of symptoms for many months and its guidance (which was last updated on 30 November) still refers to a new, continuous cough, a high temperature and a loss of, or change in, a person's normal sense of taste or smell. 

The World Health Organisation lists other common symptoms including: 

  • Loss of taste or smell,
  • Nasal congestion,
  • Conjunctivitis (also known as red eyes)
  • Sore throat,
  • Headache,
  • Muscle or joint pain,
  • Different types of skin rash,
  • Nausea or vomiting,
  • Diarrhea,
  • Chills or dizziness

Anecdotal evidence on the Omicron variant suggests that the most common symptom is intense fatigue. The government is reviewing the new variant and will have more information in the next three weeks.

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