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Omicron: new advice on working from home

The government has now adopted Plan B in full and from today (Monday 13 December) has asked everyone who can work from home to do so to help reduce the spread of the new variant.

We answer a number of FAQs about working from home.

1. Is there a legal requirement for people to work from home if they can?

This isn't a new lockdown. The government hasn't introduced legislation to compel people to work from home and they can't be fined if they continue to work from the office even if they could have worked from home. Instead, it has published guidance which employers and employees are encouraged to follow.

This guidance applies to England. Different rules apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

2. Does the guidance apply to all workplaces?

No. The advice to work from home only applies to office workers. All other workplaces can remain open but employers must continue to follow government guidance to keep staff and customers/clients safe. 

The sector guidance 'working safely during COVID-19' have all been updated to reflect the new rules about wearing face-marks in some indoor settings and advice about working from home in office environments.  

3. What does the guidance say about working from home?

The guidance states that office workers who can work from home should do so from Monday 13 December and those that can't should continue to go into work.

It sets out a number of situations where someone may have to go into work, including: 

  • To access equipment necessary for their role
  • Where they need face to face contact
  • Where they have mental or physical health difficulties
  • Where they have a 'particularly challenging home life'

In other words, if you need people to come into work, or they have a good reason to come into work they can still do so. 

But, if you are going to require people to attend in the face of express government advice that they should not, you'll need to reassure them that you have taken all steps to protect them. Update your risk assessments and let your staff know what changes you have put in place. And, you'll need to engage with anyone who is worried about coming into work to try and alleviate their concerns.  

4. Have the rules around making workplaces safe changed?

No. Employers still have a duty to ensure that their workplaces are safe for anyone who can't work from home. You must control the risks (as best you can) and update and renew your risk assessments.

The advice around ventilation, cleaning and good hand hygiene remains unchanged. However, the guidance suggests that you should also: 

  • Identify any areas of congestion in the building and taking reasonable steps to avoid this (such as re-introducing one-way systems or limiting the numbers of people you allow in one place at the same time).
  • Put in place measures to reduce contact between people who do not normally mix including reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using designated space or seating for different teams, ‘fixed teams, or ‘ partnering’ or ‘cohorting’ so each person works with the same consistent group and making sure that people work back-to-back or side-to-side working or re-introducing screens.
  • Encourage staff and customers to wear face coverings in enclosed and crowded spaces. 

Early indicators are that Omicron is highly transmissible and may have a shorter gestation period than previous variants. Therefore, if you've relaxed your COVID working arrangements, you'll need to re-introduce and possibly strengthen them. 

5. Should we ask staff who are coming into work to take regular lateral flow tests?

Your staff should only come into work if they can't work from home and you must make it clear to anyone who is coming into work, that the usual rules around self-isolation apply. 

The government recommends that people who are going into work should take regular lateral flow tests (even if they are asymptomatic) 'to manage their own risk and the risk to others'. We recommend that you notify your staff that if they come into work, they are confirming that they don't have symptoms, are not under a legal duty to self-isolate and have had a negative lateral flow test within the last two/three days (or whatever period you consider appropriate).

However, there's a shortage of home testing kits and your staff may not be able to test themselves unless they already have a supply to hand. In these circumstances, you'll need to decide whether you will allow staff to continue to come into work. This should be addressed in your risk assessment. 

6. What steps should we take to protect vulnerable members of staff?

The government has said that being double vaccinated doesn't provide enough protection against Omicron. Last night, Boris Johnson took to the airwaves to explain that his government has expanded the booster programme and that everyone who wants a booster will be able to get one by the end of this year. 

Most people who are vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable will already have been offered a booster jab. Boosters take effect from around seven days after being administered. So, most people in this category will be protected.

Government advice is to: 'Give extra consideration to people who may consider themselves to be at higher risk and to workers facing mental and physical health difficulties. You might also have other workers who are at higher risk and for whom additional precautions, advised by their doctors, should be considered.' and

That advice is rather wooly and unhelpful . You'll need to identify what aspects of your workplace put vulnerable people at particular risk and what you are doing to reduce these to their lowest possible level.  

7. Do we have to allow pregnant women to work from home?

If they are office workers and can work from home, you should allow them to do so. If they can't work from home, you'll need to do a risk assessment.

Women who are pregnant and unvaccinated, or not fully vaccinated have an increased risk of becoming severely ill and of pre-term birth if they contract COVID-19. 

You have a duty to assess the specific risks to pregnant employees, and, where these are identified, you must do all that you can to prevent or remove them. Current guidance (which hasn't yet been updated to reflect the work from home advice) advises employers to make sure that pregnant women adhere to any 'active national guidance on social distancing'.

If you can't avoid any risks you've identified, you need to temporarily alter the employee’s working conditions or hours of work. If that's not possible you should offer suitable alternative work on terms that are not 'substantially less favourable'. But, if you don't have any suitable alternative work you must suspend the employee on full pay. 

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