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Plan B: What does it mean for workers?

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There is a new variant in town, and with reported Covid cases soaring above 50,000 per day, new protections are being put in place in England to try to minimise transmission. What does that mean in the workplace?

Employers have a legal obligation to continue to manage any risk to you and your colleagues, and to adjust safety plans based on increased risk. Unions may need to apply pressure to ensure that’s happening, and adequately.

Risk assessments 

The risk level has changed, and so too must workplace risk assessments. Employers are duty-bound to update risk assessments as the Covid situation changes, and to consult union reps and/or the wider workforce on those changes.

Employers should be expected to make changes based on the knowledge of the new Omicron variant, which we now know to be four times more transmissible (i.e. more easily spread) than the previous variant of concern, Delta. This should mean stepping up protections to reduce the likelihood of exposure at work, following a hierarchy of controls method.

New government rules will need to be reflected in risk assessments, too, if they weren’t already. That includes whether the face covering mandate now applies in your workplace, or if you’re in a job role where the ‘work from home if you can’ advice can be applied.

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We know that Covid is an airborne virus, meaning it is primarily spread through the air in tiny particles (aerosols) – rather than through droplets picked up on surfaces. This means mitigations such as mask-wearing (in particular respirator masks at FFP3 standard) are all the more important; along with effective ventilation. Keeping a good supply of fresh in indoor spaces can make a big difference in diffusing any potential Covid aerosols. 
More employers are purchasing CO2 monitors, and some unions are making use of them to carry out safety inspections. These devices monitor how much CO2 is in the air in a given space; the higher it is, the more likely exposure to potential Covid aerosols is. A key threshold to be aware of is 800 parts per million (ppm): if a CO2 monitor is consistently showing a room as reading above 800ppm, action must be taken to improve ventilation, or take the area out of use. 

Action to improve ventilation may include: reducing occupancy, opening windows and doors (while also taking into account minimum working temperature), using ventilation systems which do not recirculate air, and equipment which can be purchased, such as local air filtration units

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With more than 85% of the population now vaccinated, we are moving towards large numbers of the workforce becoming eligible for their ‘booster’ shot. The TUC’s position from the start has been: nobody should be forced or coerced into being vaccinated, instead employers should be supporting you by offering paid time off for your vaccine appointment, as well as time to recover from any side-effects. 

Covid passes 

As part of the government’s Plan B approach in England, certain venues will now require people to show a Covid pass upon entry: verification that you have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. Alternatively, a negative Covid-19 test result can be shown. 

It is important to remember that a Covid certification scheme does not eliminate the risk of the virus. Vaccines and testing offer protection and confidence, but they are not a Covid cure, and it is still possible to catch and carry Covid. The scheme is therefore not an alternative to existing safety control measures, but in addition to them. 

Employers must consult the workforce before introducing a scheme. You can find more information on the TUC’s position on certification.

Workers at higher risk

With Covid cases running high, there is rightly a renewed concern about workers with particular health conditions, who were previously advised to ‘shield’. These people are at a much higher risk of experiencing severe Covid symptoms and hospitalisation. While shielding advice no longer exists, nor a furlough scheme to protect peoples’ incomes, employers must be expected to do everything they can to minimise exposure for those who face greater risks as a result. Considerations must include suspension on full pay where homeworking is not possible and other mitigations are inadequate. 

Advice on pregnant workers from health professionals, including the Royal College of Midwives, remains that there is an increased risk of complications from Covid infection, especially for those who are unvaccinated. As soon as an employer is made aware of a worker’s pregnancy they must, in line with the law, carry out an individual risk assessment and determine adjustments to mitigate risk. This may include working from home. Where mitigation of risk is not possible, an employer must introduce maternity suspension, regardless of how many weeks pregnant the worker is. 

What to do if your employer isn’t keeping workers safe 

If you have concerns about safety at work, report it to your union representative immediately. Employers must work with unions to address safety concerns, and where they fail to do so, unions can discuss any necessary action required, including reporting a breach to authorities, or collective action. Throughout the pandemic, unions have successfully organised for safer work, from socially distanced walk-outs demanding proper PPE, to petitions securing higher rates of sick pay. Whether it be an open letter or downing of tools, your union will be able to advise you on the best way to take, and to escalate, action. Everyone has the right to safety at work. 

See further resources: 

Finally, without specific support for wages and jobs, we could see a really difficult situation for many workers this Christmas. The TUC has been making the case for additional support for hard-hit sectors, and for it to be channelled through wages support – not just general grants etc for businesses. That’s exactly why we need a permanent short-time working scheme, to deal with temporary hits to demand, learning the lessons of the furlough scheme, with clear entry criteria. Here’s our op-ed in the i making the case.

No-one wants to see a rise in unemployment when we know how to prevent it.

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