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Employers: Take action on new self-isolation rules

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With 200,000 people getting sick from coronavirus every week, it is time to develop new policies and update staff handbooks.

23rd Aug 2021
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Although the data underpinning this article is drawn directly from government guidance and support, some readers might still find it alarming.

As was loudly and proudly heralded some weeks ago, there have been significant changes to government guidance regarding self-isolation after contact with those testing positive for Covid-19.

While what became known as the pingdemic sometimes led to unintended and unfortunate outcomes, it did at least appeal to the typical accountant’s sense of excessive caution.

After all, if somebody really had come into close contact with a family member, friend or even a stranger who was sick with a highly transmissible disease, surely it made sense for them to steer clear of others until they were demonstrably safe.

It seems more likely than not that the parameters being used were wrong, which led to media derision as vast swathes of the population were advised to lock themselves away, quite probably for no good reason.

We have now gone right to the other end of the scale, not only for the double-jabbed but more worryingly also anyone aged under 18 and a handful of individuals in other categories.

Put simply, the only people who are now legally obliged to self-isolate are those that have tested positive for the virus. Everything else comes down to advice or guidance.

In particular, if somebody is identified by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of an infected person, they are merely advised to take a PCR test as soon as possible, though at least this will be free.

While waiting for the test results, they will not be required to self-isolate, even if they have regular contacts with people who are clinically extremely vulnerable.

Similarly, someone who feels ill and fears that they have coronavirus is governed by this sentence from the guidance, “Meanwhile anyone who develops Covid-19 symptoms should self-isolate and get a PCR test, and remain in isolation until the result comes back.”

The words relating to someone testing positive “legally required to self-isolate” are signally missing, which sounds counterintuitive.

Enough theory, what does this mean in practice or, more particularly, for your practice.

As long as everyone is still working from home, it should not make the slightest difference.

What does the end of self-isolation mean for practices? 

Although there was mixed messaging one gets the impression that government ministers would really like people to return to their offices as soon as possible and some accountants will undoubtedly have worked on this premise.

If you knew that several fully vaccinated members of staff were currently nursing a group of sick family members, breaking off to come into the office each day while ignoring government guidance to get a PCR test, would you be happy? I wouldn’t. That concern would be magnified tenfold if the individual concerned was a teenage trainee who had not been vaccinated.

There is currently a high chance of coming into close contact with somebody who is either knowingly or unknowingly carrying and transmitting coronavirus, since around one in 75 of us are in that boat.

In particular, there is no way of assuring yourself that some people you bump into on public transport are unvaccinated or sick but unwilling to take a PCR test or, more likely, unaware that they can get these for nothing.

Similarly, if staff spent the weekend at the test match, enjoyed a closely packed night out at the theatre or finally took the opportunity to go clubbing after an 18-month absence, they might have been rubbing shoulders (or worse in a club) with someone unwittingly doing their damnedest to spread the virus.

After this article was drafted, news came through that even the double vaccinated are not that safe. Apparently, the AstraZeneca jab is only 71% effective against the Delta variant. In addition, there appears to be a strong chance that vaccinations make little or no difference to the transmissibility of the Delta variant.

Once again, in the knowledge that the government has abrogated responsibility for your members of staff, perhaps it is time to take action.

If nothing else, it must make sense to develop a rapid response plan that becomes part of a staff handbook or equivalent. This might not only strongly advise your workers to take all necessary actions to stay safe but, if they are close to sick people or feel unwell, instruct them to get a PCR test and stay at home until the results arrive.

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