UK Government issues new COVID-19 workplace guidance for England
On 1 April, the UK Health Security Agency (the “HSA”) published guidance, applicable in England, for reducing the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19, in the workplace. Whilst there is now no specific statutory requirement to specifically consider COVID-19 in health and safety risk assessments, employers would be well advised to continue to do so, given the ongoing prevalence of the virus and underlying legal obligations in respect of health and safety.
The guidance explains the most common symptoms of respiratory infections and how such infections are most easily spread. Based on that information, the guidance makes several recommendations as to how employers can reduce the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID, in the workplace:
- Encourage/enable vaccination: Employers may wish to consider how best to support and enable staff who wish to be vaccinated to get their vaccines when offered.
- Air circulation: Employers are encouraged to “let fresh air in” and enhance ventilation in the workplace.
- Regular cleaning: Employers may wish to implement enhanced cleaning measures, especially on high touch-points and provide staff with cleaning products such as soap and hot water and/or sanitiser.
If an outbreak of a respiratory infection does occur, there is no longer a requirement to report this to the local public health team. The guidance instead encourages more rigorous application of the above suggestions to minimise further spread.
The guidance also recognises that some workers are at a greater risk of serious illness from respiratory infections like COVID-19. There is specific guidance for people with weakened immune systems, but the health and wellbeing of these individuals may be something an employer wishes to consider when assessing what mitigating measures they will implement in the workplace going forward.
As noted above, the requirement for every employer to explicitly consider coronavirus in their health and safety risk assessments has been removed, but employers “may choose to continue” to do so. The HSA guidance was published alongside separate guidance aimed at individuals, including recommendations on how to personally reduce the risk of respiratory infections as well as what to do if you experience symptoms. Employers have a duty to consult with their employees, or their representatives, on health and safety matters, so they may find benefit in assessing the concerns of their workforce in light of this guidance before updating their policies.
Scotland also has its own ‘Safer Businesses and Workplace’ guidance, which strongly encourages the consideration of COVID-19 in a risk assessment; making adaptations based on that assessment; and vigilance in respect of managing COVID-19, including encouraging employers to follow advice in their “COVID-19: Fair Work Statement”.
The HSA guidance can be accessed here.
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