June 19, 2020

NHS Test and Trace Scheme

The Test and Trace scheme has been introduced as part of a long-term strategy for the management of COVID-19 outbreaks. As it will be with us for the foreseeable future and may contribute significantly to absences in your workplace, it is worth giving some thought to how it will fit into your absence management policy.

What is the scheme?

Full details of the scheme can be found here. Individuals who develop symptoms of COVID-19 are required to self-isolate for seven days and, crucially, obtain a test and disclose details of people with whom they have been in recent extended contact. Those people will be contacted separately and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days from the date of the last contact with the infected person (not 14 days from the notification).

How might this affect our workplace?

The first thing to bear in mind is that the more you can manage physical proximity and hygiene on your premises, the less likely it will be that colleagues will be reported as being at risk of infection from an employee who falls sick.   This will help you to avoid mass absences. Ways in which you can do this will be very specific to your activities but may involve:

  • Having people work at home on a longer term or permanent basis
  • Having a mix of home workers and site workers based on the tasks they perform, or on a staggered rota
  • Reorganising space or processes
  • Erecting shields
  • Distributing PPE
  • Encouraging (not requiring) employees to book and take COVID-19 tests wherever possible. This can minimise infection and reduce absence both in terms of individuals and in total across the workplace.

How do we manage these absences?

The purpose of an absence management policy of course is to encourage good attendance at work by a combination of focus, open discussion, review and (in some circumstances) formal action and sanctions. Now we are in a pandemic of a highly contagious virus however, things are different.

The government instruction is that anyone who suspects they have symptoms does not ‘soldier on’ or hurry back (as many of us often do). But rather, they stay at home for a fixed period of seven days. Anyone who has been in contact with the virus must stay home for up to fourteen days. This is not only a requirement but is quite clearly in the interests of individuals, workplaces and society in general.

Employers need to re-think how the usual rules might apply. Nudging employees’ behaviour in favour of attending work when feeling under the weather or anticipating sickness is no longer universally appropriate.

  • People falling into one of these two categories are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from day one. This means that even if they themselves are not sick, you need to treat their absence as sickness absence.
  • While it is important in all matters of employee relations to show parity of treatment, in this situation it is reasonable to treat COVID-19 related absences as a special case. If you don’t, you may inadvertently create a spike of infections that could temporarily close your workplace. You may also be breaching the Health & Safety at Work Act.
  • Those required to self-isolate can self-certificate in the usual way for seven days, by using an NHS isolation Note. If they are absent for more than seven days, they can obtain a further Isolation Note from the website. This should be your record. You do not need to insist on a GP fit note, and nor is your absent employee likely to be able to obtain one. Isolation notes can be back-dated.
  • If your absence policy uses a measure of days off or numbers of absences to trigger absence reviews, then it is reasonable to amend these to either disregard or minimise absences arising from COVID-19 self-isolation.
  • If an employee has a series of COVID-19 self-isolation periods related to their contact with infected people, you may wish to explore with them what the reason for this might be. You will need to understand whether they are engaging in behaviours that are putting them (and by extension, others) at risk and the reason for this.
  • If you suspect an employee of deliberate malingering or even fraud, this is a misconduct issue unrelated to absence management and should be dealt with accordingly.
  • The tracking system is intended to be a long-term measure. While the pandemic continues, it is unlikely to be reasonable to take formal action because of absences including COVID-19 self-isolation. However, in future this picture may alter as infection rates fall further and we adapt to living with the virus. Absence reviews should focus on the broadest picture of someone’s attendance record and on whether you as an employer are doing everything you can to keep the workplace safe.
  • The terms ‘coronavirus’ and COVID-19 are often used interchangeably. If you wish to issue any written guidance to your teams, COVID-19 – being the disease itself – is the preferable term to use. If you use ‘coronavirus’ you may be inadvertently creating a set of special circumstances for absences due to the whole group of coronaviruses including mild colds.
  • Evidence is emerging that people who become severely ill with COVID-19 may remain continuously or repeatedly sick (or suffering from chronic symptoms including reduced lung capacity and fatigue) for extended periods. Managing these situations is likely to fall under your long-term absence and even medical capability policies and you should take advice.

To find out more, please don’t hesitate to contact our friendly Moorepay team on 0345 184 4615

**Information in this blog was correct at the time of writing, however with government and legislation changes happening daily some of this may now be out of date.**

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About the author

Audrey Robertson

About the author

Audrey Robertson

HR Consultancy & Insurance Manager, Audrey, has a strong background in HR, Employment Law and related insurances in a career spanning over 15 years leading teams in-house and as a consultant supporting clients across retail, education and the B2B sectors. At Moorepay, Audrey heads up the Policy & HR Consultancy team as well as the insurance claims department. With a strong commitment and investment in employee wellbeing, having studied counselling and coaching, Audrey is a qualified Mental Health First Aider and supports our staff on-site.

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