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Stay in control: preventing Covid-19 at work

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Employers should continue to carefully control the risk from Covid-19 at work, despite the lifting of most legal restrictions in the UK.


Much had been said about the UK government’s decision in July to lift all regulations in place to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Scrapped are social distancing, the mandatory wearing of face coverings and the cap on the numbers allowed at events, and night clubs have been allowed to re-open. Although we agree that if we don’t re-open now when do we re-open there are extremely high risks to contend with.

We’ve historically been proud to call ourselves a nation that is governed by the consent of the people. Lockdowns and curtailment of freedoms have been for us the most alien of concepts, yet we’ve experienced them. The belief however that our population will act responsibly is, we fear, an increasingly unfounded belief. We know that in the autumn of 2020 the country was told to act responsibly and sadly we know how that turned out.

Removing the mask mandate in many enclosed spaces is, in our opinion, ill-timed when we continue to see soaring daily infection rates. Photograph: iStock

Despite the vaccine roll-out – and based on the current trajectory – experts and government admit we are in a third wave. The hope is that the vaccine will become a shield leaving only those who are younger and therefore less susceptible to the worst symptoms of Covid, but this overlooks one important factor.

Being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of ending up in hospital or even intensive care but it doesn’t give you full immunity. In fact, figures out recently show that 40 per cent of those in hospital care are fully vaccinated so the risk is still high of serious illness.

The withdrawal of some regulations we believe is acceptable – however, removing the mask mandate in many enclosed spaces and encouraging social distancing where possible is, in our opinion, ill-timed when we continue to see soaring daily infection rates.

Those who choose not to wear a mask continue to think that a mask is primarily for their own protection but fail to recognise that masks also protect others should you be asymptomatic. The narrative continues to focus on personal responsibility and gives the misguided view that if I make a personal judgement not to wear a mask I am simply deciding whether I’m prepared to take the risk of contracting Covid.

The question still remains whether the decision to fully re-open during a third wave was considered and appropriate. No other country has taken the approach we have and to base this solely on the increased vaccination rate could well be seen as relying on one control measure, which as many in the risk management field will attest could be a single point of failure. If a further variant is allowed to take hold and the number of vaccinated people in hospital increases we are at real risk of repeating the autumn and winter of 2020.

Employers’ conundrum

With the relaxing of regulations comes a vacuum which employers are having to fill with company policy without the backing of regulation. Do they remove controls mandated by law or do they maintain some requirements? We would suggest that employers do have a simple frame of reference in the same way as they would if there was a flu outbreak in the workplace and many are indicating that maintaining some of those controls known to be effective will be the policy until such time as the general risk levels drop.

Many employers are adopting a policy to maintain controls known to be effective until such time as the general risk levels drop. Photograph: iStock

We have seen already large companies ringing alarm bells about increased staff absences, either as a result of staff testing positive or being in close enough contact with a positive case to be required to isolate. In terms of business interruption Covid, we know, will incapacitate people.

By not setting their own standards employers do risk impacting their business through staff absences so there is a clear business benefit from keeping Covid at bay in the workplace.

The British Safety Council revised and re-published its Covid Management Guidelines in April this year in advance of the national re-opening. Within this revision additional emphasis was placed on managing a business under the cloud of Covid-19. The guide has been developed referring to the most current best practice standards and is drawn from the more than 200 global Covid-19 assurance audits undertaken since May 2020.

Download the free guide at: bit.ly/3isRMP7

Phil Pinnington is audit and consultancy manager at the British Safety Council

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