Omicron and what it means for employers

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Michelle Biggs, Employment Relations Consultant

08 December 2021

Scientists are still studying the new, highly mutated, variant of COVID19 called Omicron. So far, while it seems to be highly transmissible, there is no definitive answer to whether our vaccinations will be as effective against this variant. In an attempt to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, the UK Government has reintroduced mandatory mask wearing in certain places and moved several countries to the ‘Red List’ for travel purposes and introduced rules on quarantine for travellers and isolation for close contacts.

Self Isolation Rules

Because of one of the mutations present in Omicron, a PCR test can not only confirm you have COVID19 but it can also give a strong indication that you have contracted the Omicron version. This is critical as close contacts of Omicron variant cases must self isolate immediately. This applies to all close contacts, and household members, including those who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18. You must self isolate for the full 10 days from last date of contact, or 10 days from the day you become symptomatic.

 For employers, this means that in cases where Omicron is likely to be the variant in question, employees will have to behave as if they are not fully vaccinate. If an employee is advising you that they need to isolate due to close contact with a suspected Omicron case, you should support them to work from home where this is possible, this includes undertaking work that is not part of their normal duties but is suitable and it is reasonable to expect them to carry out. However, where they are not able to carry out any work while self-isolating, you will need to continue to pay them full pay, in line with the requirements of Part 2 Section 10.9 Contact with Infectious Diseases.

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Traveling Abroad

Everyone entering the UK from abroad (except Ireland) must self-isolate on their return, take a PCR test within 48 hours of their return and must remain in self-isolation until either they receive a negative PCR test result or 10 days after they take the test if it returns a positive result. As employers, you can determine how to manage this. For employees who are able to work from home, then the answer is relatively straight forward, employees should be supported to work from home for the self-isolation period unless they become unable to work due to sickness. However, those who are unable to work from home could be required to take self-isolation period while they await the PCR results as annual leave, unpaid leave, or use flexitime to cover the period. If the PCR test returns as positive, you would then treat this in the same way that you treat anyone who has tested positive for COVID19 and is unable to work.

In addition, more countries are being added to the ‘Red List’ in light of the rise in Omicron cases. Only UK or Irish Nationals or UK Residents are permitted to travel to the UK from these countries. Anyone returning from these countries must enter a quarantine hotel for 11 nights on their return to the UK at their own expense. They will also have to pay for PCR tests on day 2 and day 8. Again, employees will have to factor this time into their travel plans and employers can require this to be taken as annual leave, offer unpaid leave or special paid leave.

Where employees are in a country that moves to the ‘Red List’ while they are out of the UK, employers should take a sympathetic approach to managing the additional time away from work. Please refer to previous NJC circulars for guidance on the principles you should apply – NJC guidance on COVID-19 quarantine regulations 5 June 2020.

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