Covid in the workplace, what has changed three years on?
Published 27 March 2023
You could be forgiven if the devastating impact the coronavirus (Covid) pandemic had on work now feels like a distant memory, and for querying if it is still something you need to think or worry about.
It has been just over three years since the government announced the first lockdown on 23 March 2020, which led to life as we knew it then changing drastically.
The start of the pandemic forced many workplaces across the country to shut until further notice, some never reopened and others had to radically change the way in which they operate.
Desperate cost cutting measures, forced restructures, widescale redundancies, WFH (work from home) became a well-known abbreviation, one-way systems in the workplace and social distancing are just a few things that became synonymous with work during that time.
So three years on it seems timely to take a look at what employers and employees should do about Covid now, because it has not gone away, and also to look back at the impact it had on workplaces.
Is Covid still a concern?
The most recent figures released show Covid cases in England had climbed to their highest level since the start of the year.
Around one in 40 people were infected with the virus across the country, with as many as one in 17 carrying it in the worst affected areas [1 cited 27.3.23]
Office for National Statistics analysts estimate almost 1.7m people were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to 13 March. It was a jump of almost 14 per cent on the week before.
The virus continues to spread and cause illness in many parts of the world. New variants have emerged, some of which are more contagious [2 cited 27.3.23]
At the start of the year, a new variant sparked a surge in cases in the US. The XBB.1.5 mutation was projected to be the cause of 40 per cent of infections in America.
It was dubbed the most contagious yet - but it is not thought to cause people to become more ill than other forms of Covid.
Should I still go to work if I have symptoms or test positive?
There are currently no Covid restrictions in the UK.
The government advice at present is simply: If you have COVID-19 you should try to stay at home [3 cited 27.3.23]
The NHS guidance is if you have symptoms of the virus you may be able to look after yourself at home, try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people [4 cited 27.3.23]
If you test positive:
- Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for a further 3 days after your positive test if you are under 18 years.
- Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for a further 5 days after your positive test if you are 18 or over.
- Avoid meeting people who are more likely to get seriously ill from viruses, such as people with a weakened immune system, for a further 10 days after your positive test.
If you need to take time off work because you are suffering with the symptoms of Covid or you have tested positive, it is essential that you comply with your employer’s absence reporting procedure.
I am considered clinically vulnerable what can I do to continue to keep myself safe at work?
Those considered clinically vulnerable at the start of the pandemic and at greater risk of severe illness from the virus included older and disabled people.
Previously, 3.7 million clinically vulnerable people in England were asked to shield in their homes, and were given some government support to do so.
Now they are effectively on their own, left to navigate having to go into work.
The current government advice on ‘Keeping yourself safe’ for those in this group, is to ensure you have had all of the vaccines you are eligible to receive and continue to follow any condition-specific advice you may have been given by your specialist [5 cited 27.3.23]
It adds: If it feels right for you, work from home if you can. If you cannot work from home, speak to your employer about what arrangements they can make to reduce your risk. It may be that you are entitled to a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010 [6cited 27.3.23]
What does my employer have to do at present to protect me from Covid?
Covid remains a public health issue, and guidance for workplaces has been replaced with public health advice.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) no longer expects every business to consider it in their risk assessment or to have specific measures in place [7 cited 27.3.23] . But employers may still choose to continue to cover Covid in their risk assessments.
There is a requirement to protect those who will come into contact with the virus due to their work activity.
Employers must, as always, comply with the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 for welfare facilities.
Construction sites must comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 by providing adequate welfare facilities, as well as fresh air in line with Regulation 33.
Although HSE will no longer expect Covid control measures, employers must continue to consult workers and their representatives on any changes they make that might affect health and safety.
I want to go back to working from home in the way I did at the start of the pandemic, is there anything I can do?
You can ask your employer if you can work from home, or to change how often you are required to go into the workplace. Discuss your preferred working arrangements with your employer.
Working from home can be considered alongside other types of flexible working e.g. different working patterns.
Anyone can make an informal request to work from home, including if you have worked for your employer for less than 26 weeks.
If you have worked for your employer for 26 weeks or more, you can make a formal flexible working request [8 cited 27.3.23]
If you're disabled, you could ask to work from home as a reasonable adjustment.
Looking back at the impact of the pandemic on work
A year after the start of the global pandemic the World Economic Forum reported that 114 million jobs were lost worldwide in 2020 [9 cited 27.3.23]
This in combination with working-hour reductions within employment, resulted in working-hour losses approximately four times as high as during the financial crisis in 2009.
The International Labour Organization estimated that the working hours lost in 2020 (compared to pre-pandemic levels) was the equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs, leading to over the equivalent of £3 trillion in lost labour income.
The last couple of years have seen us become accustomed to the way in which we now work. Zoom and Teams meetings are now standard and convenient and hybrid WFH models are popular, accessible and effective.
The lingering effect of the pandemic on work and workplaces does remain as a constant reminder in sights we are now used to, but probably do not give a second thought.
Empty shops on the high streets stand as constant reminder of the destructive financial impact. In the first six months of 2021 more than 8,700 chain stores closed in British high streets, shopping centres and retail parks [10 cited 27.3.23]
Walk into almost any workplace and it is likely that you will spot a hand sanitiser container near the entrance, or one conveniently placed on reception.
And if you use public transport you are likely to witness a number of commuters still wearing face masks.