The Government have announced that advice encouraging clinically vulnerable employees to shield will end from the 1st April due to a fall in COVID-19 cases.

A new statement by the Department of Health and Social Care has revealed that the advice offered to vulnerable employees, encouraging them to shield, will cease at the beginning of next month.

This move was said to be prompted by a reduction in the number of COVID cases in addition to a decline in hospitalisations across the country over the last two weeks.

Furthermore, the Government has attributed this decision to the vaccination roll-out which has seen over nine in 10 vulnerable people receive their first dose of the vaccine.

However, the Government have insisted that vulnerable people should still follow all the health and safety precautions as outlined in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap.

A letter that is being posted to people classed as vulnerable advises this group to “work from home if possible”. However, it clarifies that if this is not possible, vulnerable employees should now attend their workplace.

It outlines the employer’s responsibility to “take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace” and states they “should be able to explain to [the employee] the measures they have put in place to keep [them] safe at work”.

This letter further states that vulnerable employees are eligible for support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) which has been extended until the end of September. However, it warns that this group will no longer be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) on the basis of being advised to shield.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice Director at Peninsula, outlined what this change will mean for HR teams:

Although shielding will be officially paused in England from 1 April 2021, employers should bear in mind that doesn’t necessarily signify an immediate return to the workplace for those who have been shielding.

Employers should open up communication now with affected employees about their return and be prepared for varying responses. Some might be happy to get back to work but some may have concerns; they will have been at home for up to a year in some cases.

Vaccination progress may be a key factor. Employers should treat each case individually and consider any ongoing health and safety risks to the employee. It’s worth noting that shielding will be also be paused in Wales from 1 April 2021; in Scotland, the relevant date is 26 April 2021.

Sarah Evans, Partner at Constantine Law, further outlines how HR can accommodate vulnerable employees, including practical adjustments which could be implemented:

Whilst the welcome return to “normality” does not change the duty of care employers owe to employees as to a safe place to work, including to those who have been required to shield, the lifting of restrictions does have practical repercussions.

These employees will still be advised to keep social contacts at low levels, work from home where possible and stay at a distance from other people, and employers should not place clinically vulnerable employees in harm’s way by ignoring that advice.

HR professionals should be alive to genuine concerns and anxiety about safety  and return to the workplace where home working is not an option, and accommodate flexible working, staggered start and travel times, and occupational health support wherever possible.

CV and CEV employees have been in strict lock down for a year now: reintegration into work must be done sensitively and safely and should acknowledge that anxieties will be heightened. Communication and medical advice is king now: embrace both.