Yesterday, Boris Johnson set out the government’s vision on “living with Covid-19”. The main announcement was the end of the legal requirement to self-isolate if positive. By the end of this week, people will only be “advised” not to leave home if they have the virus. This signals a shift from “state mandated” rules to “personal responsibility”, in Johnson’s words.
But the relaxation of legal restrictions comes alongside the end of free Covid-19 tests, which has huge implications for the workplace. Even in the absence of a legal requirement, most employers will still ask their employees to stay at home if they have Covid-19. For those who have mild symptoms, or are asymptomatic, the obvious option will be to work from home. But for hands-on jobs that can’t be carried out from the sofa – key workers, as we called them during lockdowns – the same rules don’t apply.
A two-tier system of workers has already developed over the last two years. While some of us were safely working from home at the peak of the pandemic, others had to go out and fulfil their “essential” tasks. As a consequence, people working in transport or in shops were exposed to a higher risk of catching the virus.
The government’s plans further exacerbate this partition between a slice of the workforce who feels safe, and one who doesn’t. For Polly Rodway, employment lawyer at BDBF, in hubs like the Square Mile common sense will prevail. “We have all worked from home, and it has worked. Perhaps where you’ll see more tension is when you can’t work from home. So this will affect different regions of the country in different ways”, she says.
There are protections in place to safeguard workers in a scenario where they are requested to come in while they have the virus but they don’t feel it’s safe to do so.
“Employees are protected from detriment or dismissal, and will be able to access the whistleblowing mechanism”, says Rebecca Kitson, employment lawyer at Addleshaw Goddard. These legal tools are easy to access; employees can apply them without having to pay for a lawyer.
Still, they will create inevitable stress and anxiety.
In the opposite case, if someone tests positive but feels fine and wants to come in, employers will face having delicate and difficult discussions; in taking away clear cut rules for the virus, the burden has been foisted onto employers, who have the interests of their vulnerable employees to think about. If workers are adamant they want to come into the office, the only available option is to offer sick pay for them to take the day off. But there will be workplaces – especially small businesses – that cannot afford to do that.
The government is stepping back and leaving more freedom for employers. There is a need for an end to government interference in our lives and in the private sector, but there has always been a case for intervention where the impingement on our liberty is less than the harm of not doing so would be. Often this is to ensure the protection of minorities – such as the vulnerable, who may not be represented at the top rungs of businesses.
Some companies will be able to afford to pay for lateral flow tests themselves, or fund sick pay where necessary. Others won’t.
Johnson has posited the end of Covid-19 rules as a moment of “pride”, but it might just hail in more division and more inequality.