‘Living with Covid’ – what does it mean for UK businesses?

At the end of February, the UK government removed all coronavirus-related restrictions, meaning several rules, including those related to self-isolation, have now changed. With such a move undoubtedly having ramifications, Business Leader investigated how UK businesses can learn to live with Covid.

How can employers create a safe working environment?

When workplaces re-opened after the first national lockdown, businesses were obligated to introduce a variety of social distancing measures, such as one-way systems and sneeze screens, to reduce transmission of the virus. With such measures no longer being legally required, however, many employers will be wondering how they can create a work environment that helps to limit the spread of the virus.

According to Ben Thompson, the CEO of HR platform Employment Hero, a strict hygiene regime is of paramount importance.

He comments: “The return to work after a global pandemic looks a little different and involves stricter hygiene measures, lots of planning, and a myriad of other processes to help keep your team safe. We recommend businesses carry out a workforce audit, create a master list of all of your teams’ members, and assess who can continue to work flexibly from home and which teams will have to be office based.

“After conducting a workforce audit, you should consult the wider team. This ensures everyone feels heard and boundaries can be respected. Businesses can then set up groups and rosters to ensure you can alternate groups coming into the office, and that in the event of an employee contracting Covid-19, you still have a ‘safe’ group of employees with similar capability.

“Lastly, communicate with your team members. Before you reopen your workplace or start allowing more staff to return, you must communicate clearly and firmly the expectations of the business. Provide each team lead or manager with the workforce planning rosters you have organised. They should then share these with their team so that everyone knows when they should or shouldn’t be coming into the workplace.”

However, Marcos Angelini, the Chairman of the Advisory Board for electrostatic disinfection technology company Vycel, gives cause for concern when it comes to hygiene in the workplace.

He comments: “There is an enormous amount of disinformation out there about hygiene. Everyone that has been scrambling to keep their businesses open have said whatever it takes to get people to trust them that an environment is safe, whether that’s the shopping mall, shared workspace or gymnasium.

“The reality is that disinfecting a public space is not a legal requirement, apart from commercial kitchens, which are mandated to do this by Food Standards because of the dangers of food poisoning.

“You would think, having gone through lockdowns, we would have learnt something from Food Standards in terms of the ‘new normal’ for hygiene. However, what still isn’t understood is that there is no two-in-one solution that is a catch-all with hygiene. The chemicals used for the cleaning and sanitising part contradict with the chemicals used for disinfecting. They need to be handled separately.

“So, when the mop has cleaned surfaces, it’s then time for a proper disinfection of both air and surface with electrostatic technology. Electrostatic technology was invented by British scientist John Canton in 1762, and it is truly an incredible way of rapidly bringing an environment back to safe. This is a technology that has been adapted and championed by Vycel.

“But the key here is that disinfecting must happen after the cleaning and sanitising. Only after that should the disinfection take place. There’s no way to cut corners with this.”

One of the other methods for limiting the spread of Covid-19 was to improve airflow and indoor air quality by opening windows. William Cowell de Gruchy, CEO of smart buildings platform Infogrid, elaborates further on the importance of indoor air quality.

He says: “Despite the events of the last two years, many businesses are yet to effectively monitor and maintain healthy indoor office climates and air quality. Not only can this significantly boost the wellbeing and productivity of employees and other stakeholders but monitoring and controlling factors such as CO2 levels, temperature and humidity can reduce the risk of virus transmission as well.

“As increasing numbers of employees return to the office, proper indoor climate management should be a material consideration for businesses. Not only does it have a direct impact on the health of current employees, but it is also crucial to attracting future talent, many of which have come to view the office as an active choice rather than a necessary evil.”

What should happen if someone at work has coronavirus?

Under the government’s plan for living with Covid, the advice is that people who test positive for coronavirus should continue to self-isolate at home. However, they only advise this until the 1st of April. So, what should happen if someone at work tests positive for the disease after this date?

Ben Thompson offers several suggestions for when someone tests positive for the disease.

“Businesses can implement a protocol to follow in the event of a team member testing positive for Covid-19,” continues Ben. “It is important to communicate with the whole team for their thoughts on what to do in the event of a team member testing positive. Including teams from the start will ensure that everyone is aware of the business protocols to follow if you are feeling unwell.

“Businesses also need to remain flexible and provide the necessary support for their employees by putting a plan in place for absences and to ensure that tasks can also be easily prioritised and picked up by other team members without adding too much to everyone’s workload.”

Marcos Angelini, however, says companies will be doing plenty to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

He comments: “I think a lot of organisations will choose to adopt various rules to manage risk moving forward. Social distancing in offices will continue for some organisations, whilst others are limiting the number of people in the office at one time by adopting a hybrid approach – with some staff at home and some in the office. Some companies are also choosing to keep staff in masks.”

So, can you refuse to work with someone who tests positive for Covid-19?

Employers are required to create a safe working environment for their employees. However, with no legal obligation to send people with Covid-19 home, some would argue there is a potential conflict of interest. So, when someone with coronavirus is told to come into work, can their colleagues refuse to work with this person?

Marcos Angelini says such a decision will be in the hands of the company.

He continues: “If someone tests positive for Covid-19, then companies will make their own decisions about whether to create physical distance from them and other staff. I think we are very much in a brave new world in terms of managing our response to viruses, but the first step towards the future office is to treat hygiene as paramount. Disinfecting office environments daily should be a no brainer.

“Now the dust has settled from Covid, I believe companies that take a healthy attitude towards pandemic preparedness for the future will ensure they adopt much more robust, stringent standards of hygiene.”

However, according to Ben Thompson, communication is essential during the event of a positive test, but so is looking after yourself.

He comments: “It is important for employers to communicate with their team and take everyone’s thoughts and feelings into consideration before putting a plan in place in the event of someone testing positive for Covid-19. Most businesses will expect people who feel unwell to remain at home rather than travel into the office, and a plan of action for such instances should be agreed with all staff members for everyone to follow these protocols.

“While caring for your team should be a priority, looking after yourself is also a non-negotiable. The old rule of ‘put your own mask on first’ remains important. Business owners, especially SMBs, are currently experiencing ‘extreme stress’ under the impacts of the virus. It is important for employers to also take time for themselves and to look after their own health.”

From the 5th to the 11th of March 2022, the number of people who tested positive for Covid-19 stood at 399,820, a 56.3% increase on the previous seven days. The number of people admitted to hospital with the virus had also risen by 1,369 (16.9%) to 9,475 in the same period. So, with cases of the disease rising steadily since restrictions ended on the 24th of February, whatever employers decide to do now covid restrictions are over, the risk posed by the virus is not only very real, but impossible to ignore.