Legal update: New UKHSA guidance for managing the spread of respiratory infections (including COVID-19)

As part of the government’s ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has finally published their updated guidance for employers, businesses, and organisations in England for managing the risk to their workforce from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.

This guidance is called ‘Reducing the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID, in the workplace’ and it replaces the ‘Working safely through COVID-19’ guidance.

Our HR & Employment Law and Health & Safety experts have summarised the key points to be aware of in this quick article.

What is the aim of the guidance?

The guidance aims to help employers and managers understand how to reduce the spread of respiratory infections such as COVID-19 and flu in the workplace.

It makes it clear that while you no longer need to expressly consider COVID-19 in your risk assessments, you do still have Health & Safety obligations to consider, including respiratory health.

It’s particularly important for you to reduce the spread of respiratory infections such as COVID-19 if there are people in your workplace at higher risk of serious illness through COVID-19.

Recognising symptoms

The guidance says it’s “important for staff and employers to be aware of symptoms so they can take actions to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other people.”

The symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections are very similar, so it’s not possible to tell if you have COVID-19, flu or another infection based on symptoms alone. Most people with COVID-19 will have a relatively mild illness, especially if they have been vaccinated.

Symptoms of COVID-19, flu and common respiratory infections include:

  • continuous cough
  • high temperature, fever or chills
  • loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained tiredness, lack of energy
  • muscle aches or pains that aren’t due to exercise
  • not wanting to eat or not feeling hungry
  • headache that’s unusual or longer lasting than usual
  • sore throat, stuffy or runny nose
  • diarrhoea, feeling sick or being sick

It’s important to remember that some people may continue to have a cough or feel tired after other symptoms have improved, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re still infectious.

What should you do if a member of staff has symptoms of a respiratory infection (including COVID-19)?

The guidance simply says that if a member of staff is unwell with symptoms of a respiratory infection such as COVID, they should follow the government guidance ‘People with symptoms of a respiratory infection including COVID-19’. This guidance says that they should:

  • “try” to stay at home and avoid contact with others until their high temperature is gone or they no longer feel unwell.
  • avoid close contact with people who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.
  • try to work from home if they can but, if this isn’t possible, they’re advised to talk to their employer “about options available”.

The employer’s guidance says:

“Employers, in accordance with their legal obligations, may wish to consider how best to support and enable their workforce to follow this guidance as far as possible.”

We would recommend that, if you decide you need employees with COVID-19 symptoms to enter the workplace at any time, you should assess the risk this poses and implement appropriate controls and risk mitigation to protect your wider workforce.

Actions to reduce the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19

The guidance sets out the following recommendations for managing the risk of transmission:

  1. Encourage and enable vaccination – “Employers, in accordance with their existing legal obligations, may wish to consider how best to support and enable staff who wish to be vaccinated to get their vaccines when offered them.”
  2. Let fresh air in – The guidance points out that this is very important, and the risk of transmission is possible even where people don’t have close contact, especially if they are in a crowded and/or poorly ventilated spaces. The risk is increased further when people in an enclosed space are participating in energetic activity, such as exercising, shouting, singing, or talking loudly. The guidance refers to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) guidance on assessing and improving ventilation.
  3. Maintain a clean workplace – The guidance recommends encouraging staff to maintain a clean working environment by providing them with cleaning products, soap and hot water, and/or sanitiser.

Outbreaks in the workplace

The guidance states there’s no requirement to report workplace outbreaks of respiratory infections to the local public health team, but if you experience high levels of people with respiratory symptoms in your workplace, you should focus on the actions above to help reduce transmission.

Management of members of staff who are at risk of serious illness from COVID-19

The guidance refers to the specific guidance issued for people at higher risk of serious illness from COVID and states “Employers may wish to consider the needs of employees at greater risk from COVID-19, including those whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.”

We would recommend that, rather than maybe considering the needs of these employees, you should always do so – particularly as many may come within the definition of disabled under the Equality Act.

Health & Safety considerations in light of the new guidance

The new guidance is rather ‘light touch’, but it’s so important that you continue to do what you can to manage the risk of COVID-19 as it’s likely that the HSE and other local authorities will still expect some level of consideration for COVID-19 controls, such as ventilation and hygiene.

We recommend that you have a policy in place detailing the hygiene measures and behaviours you expect from your workers – such as increasing ventilation and working from home where possible if unwell. When it comes to vulnerable staff, we recommend that you consider them on an individual basis and complete an individual risk assessment for each person.

The government has now said that COVID-secure risk assessments are no longer a legal requirement in England.

It may also be wise to try and raise awareness of symptoms among your employees and workers.

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