Ending isolation without clear guidance risks unnecessary spread of the virus in workplaces and could put vulnerable people at serious risk, some scientists and union leaders have warned. British Safety Council urged employers to continue to allow staff to take time off recover if they test positive or have Covid symptoms.
The government has announced the removal of all remaining Covid restrictions in place. It means the legal requirement to self-isolate for people who test positive for Covid ends from Thursday 24 February.
Self-isolation support payments have also ended although employers have until 24 March to submit final claims for Statutory Sick Pay for coronavirus related absences.
The government’s advice that people who test positive should stay at home will remain in place until 1 April. But free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public will end from that date, although free tests to those most vulnerable to Covid will continue.
Commenting on the announcement, UNISON said employers urgently need clear guidance to prevent a “super spreader free-for-all” in workplaces.
UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Putting a match to sensible safety measures, without providing guidance to employers, is reckless and will cause confusion and alarm.
“People will take the virus into work and school, risking the health of colleagues and commuters.
She added: “It will be a nightmare for employers struggling to protect staff from a potential super spreader free-for-all.”
The union is also concerned that some employers may insist staff work despite virus risks, or face penalties for staying away – particularly those with little or no sick pay such as care workers.
The British Safety Council urged employers and staff to remain cautious. Chief executive, Mike Robinson said: “Now that most people are vaccinated and the risks of catching Covid are generally less serious, the move by the Government to end restrictions was inevitable, but it’s vital we all remain cautious for the sake of ourselves and others and remember catching Covid is not the same as flu.
“Employers should continue to allow their staff to take time off when they test positive from Covid and should give people sufficient time to recover if they are unwell, just as we do from other illnesses, and make sure others are not put at greater risk from infection.”
The concerns were echoed by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). In its latest meeting of 11 February, it says providing effective incentives and guidance for organisations could address the culture and impacts of presenteeism. Encouraging working from home when unwell would be a helpful step, it says.
“Some people may also take the removal of free and accessible testing as a signal that they should continue to attend workplaces while showing COVID-19 symptoms,” it warns.
In his announcement on 21 February the Prime Minister said: “Because of the efforts we have made as a country over the past two years we can now deal with [the virus] in a very different way.”
“While the pandemic is not over, we have now passed the peak of the Omicron wave, with cases falling, hospitalisations in England now fewer than 10,000 and still falling, and the link between infection and severe disease substantially weakened.”
SAGE warns that the complete removal of legal restrictions could increase infections by as much as 80 per cent and that Omicron “may be an exception in having lower severity.”
“There is no reason why future dominant variants should be similarly or less severe than Omicron,” it stated.
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