Is it enough to be Covid-secure?


Preparing for a return to work should be ‘infection-secure’ as well as Covid-secure

With restrictions possibly being reduced in the weeks and months to come, employers are turning their thoughts again to how and when workers might return to the office. But with the likelihood of further virus mutations or even other future pandemics, Steve Herbert questions whether simply being ‘Covid-secure’ is enough in the future. 

After a year of economic downturn, personal disruption, fear, illness, and (tragically) deaths, UK employers are still nervously considering how to facilitate a safe return to the workplace.

Of course the nation has been here before. In June 2020 many businesses started the return to work process following the easement of the initial coronavirus lockdown.

Employers and their HR experts were encouraged to ensure that workplaces were Covid-secure to protect employees, clients, and suppliers. And while it’s almost undeniable that these policies will have saved lives, the reality of a further eight months of restrictions and lockdowns suggests that organisations now need to consider an even more robust and comprehensive plan for 2021 and beyond.

Because the virus is not yet beaten. It’s certainly true that the ‘R’ rate is falling, and that the vaccination programme is making significant inroads towards protecting the UK population. Yet the truth is that Covid-19 is now globally widespread and therefore probably endemic in the world’s population.

It follows that the opportunity for further virus mutations is magnified, and the possibility of achieving a true “zero-Covid” strategy looks remote. So it seems likely that we will all have to find a way to co-exist with the virus with only minimal risks. Yet employers also need to be aware of the dangers of other infectious diseases too.

There have been several major infectious-disease threats (for instance Ebola and SARS) since the year 2000, and the frequency of such diseases has almost tripled since 1980.

So while we would all like to think that a pandemic such as the Spanish Flu (1918) or COVID-19 (2019) as just a “once in a century” experience, the reality is that another epidemic could arrive far sooner than we might expect.

The benefit of experience

It follows that the onus is for HR professionals is to design a policy suitable for their workplace that is “infection-secure” rather than just Covid-secure.

This daunting task might appear more manageable if we take the opportunity to learn from our collective experience of the last year. Indeed, one of the reasons that many South-East Asian countries have weathered Covid-19 far better than Europe is that they have learnt from combating recent epidemics such as Avian Influenza and MERS.

So it makes sense to harness our new knowledge and include that within our workplace policies.

The starting point

But where to begin? The mantra of hands-face-space is a policy that should help limit the spread of many diseases, from Covid-19 to the common cold. So adopting this policy will be protecting employees and the employer’s absence record too.

We can then look to the government’s current Covid-secure guidelines. While this framework is rather basic, it at least provides a foundation on which to build a more robust set of policies that are driven by the realities of each employer’s workplace and employee population.

But there is so much more that employers could add to an infection-secure policy.

Encouraging and supporting workers to have regular vaccinations is a great starting point, and indeed business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has called on employers to provide support in this area.

Regular testing is another logical step. Health secretary Matt Hancock said in November that the mantra of “if in doubt, get a test” should extend to any illness.

Employers should also recognise that the waiting list for many routine NHS treatments is now likely to be significant, so to maximise worker attendance access to private healthcare treatments via private medical policies or health cashplans is a good idea.

Of course one of the big challenges post-testing is financially supporting workers so that they can isolate from others until they are no longer infectious.

Some of this incentive may come from future government funded support, but in the meantime employers can build a robust sick pay policy to help employees do the right thing should they need to isolate.

Offer all the tools needed

And then there are all those useful employee benefits tools that can be deployed to make a positive difference. Providing life cover to all workers is a low-cost measure which all good employers should support, for example.

Remote GP appointments are cheap to provide and may reduce transmission contacts too. They are also generally accessible at a far wider range of times and dates than a visit to the local doctor’s surgery.

Looking ahead, it’s also worth thinking about supporting those on long-term sick leave, particularly as long Covid is a significant threat even for an otherwise young and healthy workforce. Group Income Protection schemes have an important role to play here, and often include early intervention services to support workers back into the workplace where possible.

Employers should also recognise that the waiting list for many routine NHS treatments is now likely to be significant, so to maximise worker attendance access to private healthcare treatments via private medical policies or health cashplans is a good idea.

Culture and communication

But all the above steps will be wasted if employers fail to communicate their policy well, or don’t make the need for employee compliance with such an edict clear. This may well require a significant review of company culture and regular communication strategies too.

The truth is that the risks of infectious diseases are on the rise, and that Covid-19 may also be here for many years to come. So it follows that employers should build an infection-secure policy that will protect both their workforce and the employer too.

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