On 21 February the Prime Minister announced the Government’s plans to remove the remaining coronavirus (COVID-19) legal restrictions in England from 24 February 2022, and set out its plans in Living with COVID-19. (See details in table below).

Nicola Sturgeon has also unveiled plans for Scotland, which include an end to various restrictions from 21 March 2022. The Welsh government has said that current level of protections will remain in place for the next three weeks but all legal measures are scheduled to be removed from 28 March 2022, if the situation remains stable. Northern Ireland’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions have recently been revoked and are now guidance only.

Since the Prime Minister’s announcement, NHS England and NHS Improvement has published Living with COVID-19 white paper – update. UKHSA has also published additional guidance for the management of staff and exposed patients or residents in the health and social care settings. Both the white paper and the guidance qualify the Living with COVID-19 plans for the health sector and highlight that in the main the advice for staff members has not changed.

Self-isolation

Although there is no longer a legal requirement for people with COVID-19 to self-isolate, the public health advice for people with any of the main symptoms of COVID-19 or a positive test result is to stay at home and avoid contact with other people. Due to the higher risk nature of health and social care settings, the advice for staff members working in these settings has not changed.

In line with previous guidance published by NHS England and NHS Improvement, the white paper sets out that NHS Healthcare staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 should not attend work until they have had two negative LFD test results taken 24 hours apart. The first test should not be taken before day 5 after their initial positive test. Managers and staff members who test positive or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive should also adhere to the UKHSA Guidance. In particular this sets out the need to undertake a risk assessment where the staff member works with patients or residents who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and consideration given to redeployment.

This should also be the case with subcontractors and agency staff. The white paper stresses that it is vital organisations continue to work closely with their subcontractors to manage infection risk; agencies must also ensure that the staff they are sending to undertake shifts have not tested positive for COVID-19.

Pay

The Living with COVID-19 document states that from 24 March the current statutory sick pay (SSP) rules in relation to COVID-19 absences will come to an end and we will return to the pre-pandemic position.

However, in line with previous NHS England and NHS Improvement guidance published in March 2020, NHS organisations and their subcontractors are expected to ensure that any member of staff, who have to be physically present at an NHS facility to carry out their duties, receives full pay for any period in which they cannot attend work as a result of public health advice.

The Temporary COVID-19 - Terms and Conditions guidance, which includes arrangements for COVID-19 related sickness absence will remain in place. As such, there is no immediate change in the payments made to eligible individuals who are required not to attend work due to COVID-19.

Testing

Current testing protocols should continue for healthcare staff until further guidance is received from the UKHSA and the DHSC.

In the Living with COVID-19 document the Government stated that they will stop free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for all on 1 April. However, they indicated that there will be free symptomatic testing for social care staff and some other groups. We are expecting further detail in March on the ongoing testing protocols which will be applicable for NHS patients and staff.

Vaccination

There is as we have previously reported no longer a mandatory requirement for health staff to be vaccinated (when the Regulations are revoked on 15 March). However healthcare regulators have issued recent statements encouraging vaccination by staff due to vulnerability of patients.

What does this mean for NHS employers?

For the time being there is no change for NHS employers, however, there may be some changes in the pipeline as the Government continues to ease the country out of restrictions. We will keep this under review and update you as soon we have more information.

Timetable of removal of restrictions for the public in England, as set out in “Living with COVID-19"

From 24 February 2022

  • The legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive or for certain close contacts will end and be replaced by guidance. The guidance reflects the current mandatory requirement to isolate for a minimum of 5 days after a positive test and then to continue to do so until the individual has two negative test results on consecutive days. This advice will remain in place until 1 April. There will be specific guidance for staff in particularly vulnerable services, such as adult social care and healthcare.
  • The legal obligation for individuals to tell their employers when they are required to self-isolate will end.

From 24 March 2022

  • The current statutory sick pay (SSP) rules in relation to COVID-19 absences will come to an end and we will return to the pre-pandemic position. This will mean that SSP will not be available for isolating asymptomatic employees. The right to claim statutory sick pay from the first day of COVID-related absence will also be removed, meaning that those ill with the virus will only be paid from the fourth day they are off work.

From 1 April 2022

  • The Government will no longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for all. There will be some limited ongoing free testing, including limited symptomatic testing available for a small number of at-risk groups (further details on which groups will be eligible to follow) and free symptomatic testing for social care staff.
  • The Government will update guidance to set out ongoing steps people with coronavirus should take to minimise contact with other people.
  • The health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider coronavirus in their risk assessments will be removed.