HR SUPPORT

COVID-19

Below you will find a range of information and resources that we have collated during each stage of the response through the pandemic. In some cases we have simply directed you to an external source, e.g. GOV.UK, as the information or guidance changes so frequently that it is more appropriate that you go direct to the source. However, we have also developed FAQ’s based on the questions our Employment Team are receiving through the advice line. These generally look at interpretation of the information available and its application in the Local Government sector.

If you have a question for the Employment Team the best way to get in touch is to drop us an email. We’re always happy to help.

 

January 2021

As we enter Lockdown 3.0 we return to a situation where schools are closed to students unless they are children of critical workers or are vulnerable. In addition, this time round, children who don’t have access to online learning facilities e.g poor internet connection, no laptop/device, are also prioritised to be in school.

We are in the process of reviewing the FAQ’s that were developed in Lockdown 1  to ensure they are relevant for the current situation. Those contained in our FAQ section below have been reviewed in light of the current situation.

 

Information and Guidance

Job Retention Scheme

We have seen many versions of this since March 2020 but the current scheme will remain in place until 30 April 2021 with the Government funding 80% of non-worked hours until then. For more details of the scheme, please see our Job Retention Support page.

NJC Circulars

With the advent of Lockdown 3, the LGA have confirmed a return to the guidance set out in the early NJC Circulars related to people attending work and appropriate pay rates. The most relevant circulars are:

NJC Circular – Coronavirus – 12 February 2020 – Green Book Sick Pay Scheme application

NJC Circular – Coronavirus and Working at Home – 17 March 2020

NJC Circular – Coronavirus and Critical Workers – 23 March 2020

Test and Trace Support Payments

The Government has set out financial support for those who are told to self isolate and who can’t work from home. The employee must satisfy the following criteria:

  1. has been told to self-isolate on or after 29 September 2020, by the NHS Test and Trace Team AND from December the NHS App, and
  2. qualifies for certain means tested benefits, e.g. Universal Credit, and
  3. will suffer a financial detriment due to the need to self-isolate e.g. they cannot work from home and won’t be paid.

The employee should submit their claim for the £500 self-isolation payment via their Local Authority who should have a clear and easily accessible process for doing so.

Note that from December, the NHS COVID-19 app will allow those who have been instructed to isolate via the app to be able to claim the £500 payment, via the app.

As eligibility for this payment included suffering financial detriment caused by the need to self-isolate, it is unlikely that any Local Government employees, including schools staff, will qualify as employers are advised continue to pay them full pay during any period of self-isolation under the various sets of national terms and conditions.

Self-isolation pre and post hospital treatment

Initial advice stated that anyone expecting to attend hospital for treatment, including out-patient cases, should isolate for 14 days prior to their treatment date and for a similar period after release. In addition, all members of their household should self-isolate too. The NJC issued guidance that this period should be paid at normal pay in-line with the Green Book’s terms around contact with infectious diseases.

Note: The self-isolation period has reduced to a maximum of 10 days both before and after treatment, in line with the reduced period of self-isolation following advice from Test and Trace or the NHS App.

We are aware that hospitals have been issuing letters to their patients, containing specific guidance for periods of self isolation both before and after admission. Therefore, where an employee advises you that they need to self-isolate for a specified period, either because they are undergoing treatment or a member of their household is, you should seek confirmation of the instructions that have been recieved e.g. a copy of the hospital letter which can be redacted if it doesn’t apply to your employee. You should support them as much as possible to work from home, even if that isn’t carrying out their day to day duties but instead undertaking a specific project that would benefit the team/organisation. If working from home is not possible, they should be placed on special paid leave for the specified isolation period.

It was hoped that there would be limited numbers of people having to isolate in advance of treatments only to have the treatment postponed. However, in reality even during the period of reduced restrictions treatments were being postponed due to staff sickness. With the rising numbers of COVID patients in hospitals, all but emergency or essential treatment is now being postponed.

Joint Workforce Guidance (Schools & colleges) – Quarantine Rules & self-isolation for planned hospital admissions

In collaboration with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and NAHT unions, the LGA has published joint workforce guidance for schools on how to best manage the Government’s current quarantine rules and NHS requirement for self-isolation with regards planned hospital admission

Resources

Risk Assessments

A number of Public Sector organisations have provided us with copies of their risk assessment forms and tools so that our member organisations can use or adapt them in their own settings. To access these resources please see our Risk Assessments page.

COVID Risk Assessment Resources

Workforce Planning to support Testing and Vaccine Programmes

Many councils across our region are being approached with requests to support the roll out of lateral testing sites and the vaccination programme. These requests for staffing come at a time where our workforce is already stretched as we are still managing additional workload demands as a result of the pandemic and so councils are having to carefully consider their approach to such requests.

Anecdotally we have a variety of responses in our region. Some councils are able to release a small number of staff and redeploy them for part of their normal working week. While others are making the decision that they can not release any of their workforce at this time, although they are communicating the request for volunteers to their workforce along with their volunteering policy which provides for a number of days of ‘volunteering leave’.

The NHS Test and Trace team have developed a workforce planning tool to help Local Authorities identify workforce demands for the Testing programme and it is likely that a similar tool will be made available to support the vaccination programme as that rolls out more widely.

Community Testing Workforce Blueprint 2020

LGA COVID-19 Workforce Survey

This fortnightly survey by the LGA seeks information from all councils across the country on the impact of COVID19 on the local government workforce. It started shortly after the start of Lockdown 1 and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Core questions have remained unchanged since the first round and seek information on absence levels, strain on services, recruitment and access to PPE. In addition to these core questions, time sensitive questions are included. In the run up to the implementation of the Public Sector Exit Pay Cap Regulations, information was sought relating to the number of exit converations that were in progress. In the final stages of the EU Transition period, information was sought in relation to preparedness.

The survey is circulated to named contacts, normally within HR, in all councils across the country. This includes councils in the South East who are not in membership of SEE.

The information collected in these surveys is used by the LGA, as evidence in support of the case to Government for support and resources, such as the Spending Review but also seeking guidance on Exit Pay Cap transition. The data is also shared with:

  • MHCLG, to help shape government thinking about capacity in local government
  • Local Resilience Fora, to inform decisions based on the availability of staff
  • Regional Employers Organsiations, such as SEE, to help us understand the issues our councils are facing to shape the support we offer.

MHCLG in particular are relying on the data collected in this survey but have expressed some concerns regarding response rates. If the survey is deemed to no longer provide representative and reliable data, those organisation who are currently using and relying on the data will likely decide to request information directly from councils so rather than one request, councils may see multple requests for similar data instead.

If you would like to know whether your council has responded to the recent rounds of this survey please email us.

For details of the survey questions and the weekly summary results please see our dedicated LGA COVID19 Workforce Survey page.

DHSC risk reduction framework for social care employers

DHSC has published risk reduction guidance for social care employers, noting that the social care workforce is vital in supporting the health and care needs within our communities, and that keeping people who work in social care settings, and those who use social care services, safe and well is critical.

The guidance makes clear that adult social care employers have a duty of care to secure the health, safety and welfare of workers and the people who use services, as far as possible.

Service providers should have a process in place to assess and reduce risk for everyone in their care, regardless of characteristics or vulnerabilities. This should include:

    • the risk to the people who use the service, considering any individual characteristics which may put them at increased risk
    • the risk in the workplace, which should include travel to and from, and travel between workplaces
    • the risk to workers, including volunteers, considering any individual characteristics which may put them at increased risk.

 

 

Reset Reflective Practice

The purpose of this tool is to support teams to take stock of the current ways of working; enabling reflection, capturing learning from our experiences, and using these insights to inform and shape the future. This resource was supplied by West Sussex county Council.

COVID-19 Reset Reflective Practice Tool

Wellbeing

Throughout this pandemic, staff wellbeing has been a key consideration. The sudden shift to working from home, the challenges of balancing work and homeschooling, the constant message of ‘risk’ associated with social distancing measures, the ebb and flow of the waves of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns along with the additional work that the pandemic has caused will all be taking their toll on your employees.

We are seeking to pull together a series of wellbeing resources for you to refer to. These can be found on our COVID Wellbeing resources page:

COVID Wellbeing Resources

FAQ’s

We have Clinically Vulnerable employees who can't work from home. Can we ask them to come into the workplace?

During Lockdown 3, Government guidance is that where an employer has undertaken an individual risk assessment for those who are Clinically Vulnerable (CV) and have made the workplace COVID secure taking into consideration those individual needs, then CV employees who cannot work from home can attend the workplace.

In contrast to this NJC employers have been advised that the guidance that was issued in March 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic and Lockdown 1 is to be referred to during Lockdown 3. The NJC Circulars indicate that Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) and CV employees should be supported to work from home but where this was not possible, they effectively should be placed on special paid leave at full pay.

There has been significant discussion about the inclusion of CV employees during this lockdown, largely because employers have already undertaken individual risk assessments and made workplaces COVID secure which means those that are CV could still attend work safely. Employers are reminded that the NJC circulars are guidance and advice. The following statement has been issued:

“Following the announcement of a further national lockdown, the National Joint Council (NJC) (which is the body responsible for agreeing pay, terms and conditions for local government employees, including school support staff) agreed to refer employers to advice and guidance previously issued in March 2020.

 The NJC accepts that the advice in the March NJC circulars goes beyond the current government advice with regard to Clinically Vulnerable employees. However, all COVID-related advice and guidance issued by the NJC is preceded by the following statement: “All information contained in this circular is correct at time of publication but all links to external government websites should be checked regularly as official advice is likely to be updated as the situation continues to develop.”

The NJC last week felt that time was of the essence and guidance had to be issued quickly. At the end of the day it is just that – guidance, and is not binding on employers. In dialogue with individual employers the National Employers have consistently urged open discussions with staff in order to support the safety and confidence of the workforce and the best possible delivery of services.”

Can an employer ask for proof of a negative COVID19 test result?

Yes, in the Green Book Sickness Absence scheme, there is a provision that is not often exercised but can be useful whereby an employer can request a Fit Note from a GP declaring that the employee is fit to return to work. By extension this provision could be relied on to request proof of a negative COVID19 test result before allowing an employee back into the workplace.

This won’t apply where the employee was self-isolating because a member of the household showed symptoms and subsequently received a negative test result. This is because the test result is not the employee’s data. However, you could request a self-declaration with a clear indication that if the declaration is made falsely, the matter will be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure.

Can an employer ask for proof of advice to self-isolate?

Yes, an employer has a legitimate interest in requesting this information. You can also ask employees to self-certify their requirement to self-isolate asking for details of the source of the advice. As with any self-certification process it should be made clear that providing false information is a disciplinary offence.

We have employees, not in critical roles, that can't work from home. Can we insist they attend work?

Yes. While the current message is ‘stay at home’ the Government guidance confirms that people can attend work where they cannot reasonably work from home. Employers should undertake risk assessments for their work bases to ensure they are COVID Secure. 

Those who are Clinically Vulnerable (CV) or Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) are not expected to attend work during Lockdown 3. Local Government employers are expected to apply the guidance issued in the NJC Guidance issued in March 2020 during the first Lockdown.  Please find links to these circulars above.

Where an employer is unable to provide a COVID Secure workplace for their employees, whether they are clinically vulnerable or not, the employee should stay at home on full pay until the workplace can be made safe. The reason for this is the undertlying principles of the employment contract. Where an employee is ready, willing and able to work but the employer is unable to provide them with work the employer must continue to pay them in accordance with their contractual terms. Where an employer is not able to provide a COVID secure workplace, they are preventing the employee from working.

For those who are now working at home, what are our health and safety responsibilities for these employees?

You are responsible for the health and safety of your workforce whether they are office based or working at home. Part of this is ensuring your workforce understand their own responsibilities for protecting their own health and safety, regardless of where they work.

When we entered Lockdown 1, home working was seen as a temporary situation and as such the requirements to undertake assessments such as DSE assessments were not required in the same way. However, as we head ever-closer to the one year mark, employer are being encouraged to treat those working from home as ‘home workers’ for the purpose of undertaking H&S assessments.

The HSE has guidance on how to manage those working from home regularly and occassionally available on their website:

HSE Guidance on Homeworkers (external link)

They added ‘temporarily’ to the guidance at the start of the pandemic but this would only apply during Lockdown 3 if the employee had returned to working in the office full time between Lockdown 1 and 3.

What are the rules around annual leave during a lockdown?

Employees can still book and take annual leave during a lockdown period. However, many will choose not to as they can not ‘go away’ for their annual leave period and so will be faced with spending their time within the same four walls that many of them will currently be working in. Employees may also wish to cancel periods of leave already booked.

Annual Leave is a Health and Safety provision though. It is designed to allow people to take a break from work, to rest and relax. For many this is still a critical need. Employers should carefully consider any requests to cancel periods of leave, taking into consideration work demands, untaken leave entitlements and the wellbeing of the employee. Being forced to take leave when they can’t leave their house may be detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing. 

As employers you do have the ability to require employees to take annual leave at a specified time – we often see this at Christmas time where an employer designates the days between Christmas and New Year as days where employees are required to take leave. The law states that an employer must give notice of at least twice the length of time intended to be taken as leave, e.g. one week’s leave needs two weeks’ notice. However if you don’t normally enforce periods of leave during a normal leave year, we would recommend that you don’t start now.

Instead, employees should be encouraged to book their annual leave in the normal way. Employers should regularly remind employees of their untaken leave entitlement and clearly set out what the carry over policy is.

If employees have been unable to take their annual leave during the leave year in which it fell due as a result of the COVID pandemic, employers now have the ability to permit the carry forward of up to four weeks statutory leave into the next two leave years. In some cases this has beeen treated as an automatic entitlement to carry forward the full four weeks into the next leave year. However, it is not an automatic right of the employees’. They must have been prevented from taking their leave in the leave year in which it fell due. A strict interpretation of the temporary change in law would mean that employees are only able to carry forward that amount where the employer was not able to release them from their work because they were critical to the COVID response. However, it is anticipated that a slightly more leanient interpretation will be used, meaning that times of national restrictions (teir 4 and lockdowns) where people were unable to travel (note this is not limited to travel overseas but includes the ability to travel within the UK) may be considered as preventing an employee from taking their annual leave for the purpose it was designed for. 

Should we progress formal disciplinary or grievance cases during lockdown?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this but you should take a decision based on the facts of each case. SEE produced a guide during Lockdown 1 setting out the areas for consideration. 

SEE Guidance – Conducting Employee Relations Casework During a Pandemic

SEE consultants have continued to undertake disciplinary and grievance investigations and hearings remotely throughout the pandemic. While there are different challenges to overcome, the investigation is as robust as it would be if our consultants were meeting the various parties in real life.

What do we do if a ‘critical worker’ doesn’t secure a place for their child in their school?

We are aware that some schools are limiting the number of children they will have on site each day and have therefore rejected some requests for ‘critical worker’ places. Our understanding is that schools have to provide places for vulnerable and critical worker children. However, schools might be seeking to prioritise frontline workers such as NHS and education or childcare worker children where staffing levels or space restrict the number of children they are able to have on site. At present, updated guidance is not available on whether social distancing requirements are returning to school environments during this lockdown which would effect the number of children that could be accommodated on site.

Initially, you may need to write a letter to the employee’s school setting out the nature of the work the employee undertakes and stressing its importance to either the COVID19 Response or the EU Transition and requesting that the employee’s child(ren) be allocated a space.

If this is not possible you will need to work with your employee to consider a range of flexible working options:

  • Can any part of the role be done at home rather than at the work base?
  • Can any part of the role be done outside of ‘normal office hours’?
  • Can the child(ren)’s other parent (or person with parental responsibility) assist with homeschooling and childcare needs?
  • Can the employee set up an informal childcare bubble with another family that enables the two families to share the responsibility of supporting homeschooling by taking turns to have the children?
  • Does the employee ordinarily use a Childminder to provide wraparound care during term time and if so, can the childminder accommodate the employee’s child(ren) during the day?

As in the first lockdown, employers are encouraged to support employees as much as possible while they are trying to balance work and homeschooling.

 

Who can we designate as ‘critical workers’?

The full list of ‘critical workers’ can be found on the GOV.UK website: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision#critical-workers

Anyone in Health or Social Care plus those working in education or childcare are deemed critical workers as Fire and Rescue, Police, those involved in public safety and the provision of IT infrastructure. However, there is a specific category for Local and Central Government workforce:

“This only includes those administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of:

  • the coronavirus (COVID-19) response, and the delivery of and response to EU transition
  • essential public services, such as the payment of benefits and the certification or checking of goods for import and export (including animal products, animals, plants and food), including in government agencies and arms length bodies”

While this seems narrower with regards to the COVID19 response than before, we don’t believe this to be the case. Remembering this is Government Guidance for interpretation by employers, we believe this permits a vast majority of our workforce to be classified as ‘critical workers’. It can be interpreted strictly, of course, but it can equally be read that it does not just cover those who are directly delivering COVID response or EU Transition work, it also covers those who are backfilling where people have been deployed away from their substantial work and those carrying out work that enables the frontline response. Therefore, if you determined a post was critical to the COVID response last time, chances are it is still critical now and the post holder is a ‘critical worker’.

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